NatureWatch: Birds, birds and more birds


Q: On Friday, Nov. 22, we saw this unusual bird feeding under our bird feeder in Peru. It was robin-size, yellow/gold head and chest, and small white wing marking. My books identified it as a yellow-headed blackbird, although this is a Western bird. I was assuming it may have blown off course during the terrible Midwest storms or have these birds now been seen farther east?

-- Sharon, Peru

A: According to David St. James, local follower of bird sightings, "There are only five confirmed reports of this species in the county. One spring observation in Williamstown in 1950. Four fall records between Sept. 13 and Oct. 23. A male was photographed in June 2010 in Pittsfield."

Accidentals are more common it seems during the fall migration months, and just about anything may show up. On a few occasions, we have seen hummingbirds here late in the fall. For instance, according to St. James, "a rufous hummingbird was seen coming to a feeder just north of town in Lanesborough on Route 7 between Oct. 11 and Dec. 2, 2003. Another seen between Nov. 1 and Nov. 10, 2007, and was banded and photographed in Pittsfield."

And the late October and early November hummingbird records we received this fall may have possibly been rufous.

Q:Why is it the gray junco birds I see near our feeder always take seeds that fall on the ground rather than go to the feeder like all the other birds?

-- Helen, Lenox

A:My guess is, given time they will. Just a couple years ago, when we relocated from Dalton to Pittsfield, it took most of the winter for a single one to perch on the tube feeder. Now, probably half of the dark-eyed juncos visiting our yard will take seed from the feeders, although they much prefer one tube feeder standing upright on a small deck table that through laziness, I neglected to stow for the winter. Some take seed from the tube, others from the table. It is progress.

These little sparrows, dressed up in tucks, are mostly winter visitors in the valleys, but on our higher mountains, are summer nesters. They are a gray bird on top, white underneath with conspicuous white tail feathers. And they are among the most numerous woodland birds in North America that frequent bird feeder, mostly feeding beneath them, during the winter months.

My take on their feeding habits is that in the distant past they evolved as ground feeders, hopping around the base of trees and shrubs searching for fallen seeds, and with bird feeders a relatively new feature, a blink in Earth’s history since the last Ice Age, they are only now learning about the "new" food source.

This bird was commonly known not many years ago as the slate-colored junco, but to "country folk" and persons only knowing it as a winter bird pass on this name and its new title, dark-eyed junco, for common snowbird or simply snowbird, probably because it shows itself in the lowlands about the same time as the first snow.

Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954), one of America’s greatest ornithologists, wrote in his extraordinary "Life Histories of North American Birds," "On the whole, they are rather scrappy when feeding together and with other birds. Individuals vary in pugnacity, and sometimes females at a winter feeding station will drive off males."

Let it snow, let it snow:

Ski passes for the 2013/2014 season are now available at Notchview Reservation on Route 9 just east of Windsor. For more information, phone (413) 684-0148.

Questions and comments for Thom Smith: email


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