My backyard bird feeders are a busy place this time of year. I enjoy keeping track of who visits – especially as a relative newcomer to the Utah bird scene. Last winter, however, I was baffled by the identity of what turned out to be a fairly ordinary bird.
Dark-eyed juncos are a common sight throughout the United States, but as it turns out, they exhibit an incredible geographic variation in plumage colors. There is a ‘slate-colored race’ which I was used to seeing in the Midwest – uniformly gray above with a white underbody. During Utah winters, the ‘Oregon race’ is common, with its black hood, brown back and peachy sides. Another ‘gray-headed race’ sports varying shades of gray with a distinct reddish brown patch on its back.
Depending on who you ask, there are up to fifteen different races, also called sub-species, of dark-eyed junco – all quite visually distinct, but all considered to be the same species. It wasn’t always this way, however. In the late 1950’s what we now call dark-eyed juncos were recognized as four different species, and in the 1890’s there were six.
These changes beg the question, at what point does speciation occur? And the answer lies in the ability of these birds to interbreed. One scientific definition of a species is those organisms or populations of organisms that are “potentially capable of interbreeding.”
Unique plumage patterns have evolved in a number of geographic locations across the junco’s range, however all of the dark-eyed junco variants could potentially interbreed if they happened to meet. Indeed in places where these geographic territories overlap inter-breeding does take place resulting in blends of the usually-distinct color patterns.
Juncos aren’t the only bird species with recognized color variants. Any raptor enthusiast will be familiar with variations in plumage colors that many birds of prey exhibit, such as merlins and red-tailed hawks. What makes dark-eyed juncos unique is that they are being studied as a possible case of speciation in progress. It turns out that there is more than just a difference in color among dark-eyed juncos. Some sub-species also exhibit variation in song patterns, social behavior, body size, and migration patterns, any of which may eventually cause these groups to stop interbreeding and allow a new species to emerge.
To see pictures of dark-eyed junco subspecies, visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.
For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.
Photos: Courtesy & © Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org
Atwell, J.W., O’Neal, D.M, and Ketterson, E.D. (2011) Animal Migration as a Moving Target for Conservation: Intra-species Variation and Responses to Environmental Change, as Illustrated in a Sometimes Migratory Songbird. Environmental Law. Vol. 41:289 p. 289-319, https://www.amazon.com/Animal-migration-moving-target-conservation/dp/B005C29H7I
Alderfer, Jonathan (editor) (2005) National Geographic Complete Book of Birds. National Geographic Press. Dark-eyed junco information available online at: https://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/dark-eyed-junco/
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds: Dark-eyed Junco. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id/ac
History of Name Changes for Juncos. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/News/junco_taxonomy.pdf