Mysteries of the Winter Sky: Snowbirds and a Total Solar Eclipse

Learn the mysteries of the winter sky including which snowbirds grace the U.S. and how to safely view a total solar eclipse.

| February/March 1998

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    A solar eclipse as seen from Hawaii.
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    The dark-eyed junco spends its winter across most of the U.S. north of Georgia.
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    A total lunar eclipse only happens on a given part of the earth once every 360 years.
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    Snow buntings can easily withstand temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

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The Eclipsed Season

If you're getting just plain sick of winter, perhaps some fine February and March birds and eclipses can help brighten things up a bit. By making the heavens, birds, and nature in general an important part of your life, you'll be following in the footsteps of a number of the men whose lives we are supposed to collectively celebrate each February on Presidents' Day.


February is often the snowiest month in many parts of the U.S. The swallows may still be many weeks away from returning; what birds can we look for to cheer us up? There may be chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and of course brilliant cardinals and blue jays at our feeders. But there are two other kinds of birds which may bolster us against wintry weather partly by virtue of their own incredible hardiness in the face of cold and snow. I'm referring to the "snowbirds": juncoes and snow buntings.


The juncoes are much more common across the U.S. The most widespread species of them was, until a few decades ago, called the slate-colored junco. Then a decision was made that slate-colored juncoes and the Oregon junco should really be considered variants of the same species, the dark-eyed junco. The slate-colored junco seems rather drab in its plumage: gray head and back (darker gray in males), white underneath. Thoreau described them as "leaden skies above, snow below." But there is one wonderfully distinguishing surprise when a junco flies off: the feathers on either edge of the tail flash white. Juncoes also have pinkish beaks but this is generally a pale color and not immediately noticed.

Juncoes spend the winter across most of the U.S. north of Georgia. It's easy to attract flocks of them, but they are almost always ground-feeders—even their nests are hidden on or near the ground — so leave food for them beneath your feeder. In New Jersey where I live, they spend almost exactly six months, typically arriving from the north in mid-October and leaving for the north in mid-April. Along the Appalachians and across New England, some juncoes are year-long residents.

Most, however, summer in Canada —  as far north as the southern part of Hudson Bay in the east but as far north as the shores of the Arctic Ocean in western Canada and Alaska. Many of our warblers and other songbirds that arrive in spring are inherently tropical or sub-tropical birds and they look it, with their bright colors. But we should be equally impressed that the juncoes are natives of the sub Arctic and Arctic who come visit us in the U.S. to enjoy our "mild" weather in winter!

The Snow Bunting

The juncoes are not nearly as polar or winter-hardy as the other "snowbird," the snow bunting. In winter, snow buntings are mottled gray and rust-color on top — they have a rusty cap — and white underneath with prominent white wing-patches. In summer, in their far-north homes, they are almost entirely white, save for some small striking patches of black left on the wings and back. Most winters, you won't see snow buntings in great numbers farther south than about New England, Chicago, Nebraska, Montana, and the Washington-British Columbia border. Some years, however, they may throng south to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kansas, Utah, and Oregon. Whereas juncoes prefer to pick seeds out of shallow snow, snow buntings are adept at feeding on the seeds of tall grasses and weeds sticking up out of the snow, even if they have to flutter up to get to the seeds.

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