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Your Junco Nest Observations Could Help Researchers Impeded by COVID-19

Photo © Sam Comen

By Eleanor Diamant and Dr. Pamela Yeh, UCLA

Junco Adaptation to Cities in the Digital Age

The Dark-eyed Junco, a small but mighty bird, has been doing well in cities despite all of the disturbances that people (and their cars, buildings, and pets) cause.

Within Southern California, juncos first colonized the city of San Diego in the early 1980s. They have more recently colonized cities up the California coast, landing in Los Angeles in the 2000s, and in Santa Barbara likely within the last 10 years.

Temporary Shelter

Temporary Shelter

This junco nest was found beneath a cardboard box. Junco nests can be found in many unusual places including flower pots, hanging baskets, brush piles, bicycle helmets, and other cave-like structures.

In Dr. Pamela Yeh’s lab at UCLA, we have been banding and studying junco populations in Santa Barbara, East Los Angeles, West Los Angeles, and San Diego. We are determining how the junco populations have adapted to life in a city, and whether they have adapted similarly or differently across the different cities. At UCLA, we have been following their lives for the past two and a half years, finding where they nest, and determining the success of each of our uniquely banded (and named!) birds. Using this data, and incorporating citizen-science data from NestWatch, we can determine how different behaviors affect success within the UCLA population as well as the larger breeding population.

Thanks to NestWatch, we have been able to move nest monitoring into the digital age and facilitate nest checks across a large team of undergrads and graduate students. Samuel Bressler, our Junco nest-hunting king and Master’s student, brought NestWatch into the fold in the middle of our first field season in 2018. Through it, we can easily keep up to date, determine who needs checking, and facilitate nest checks when different members of our team are checking or banding chicks. We are also excited at the prospect of adding our data from more than 150 nests to the large pool of data collected by the NestWatch community.

Juncos in the City: Exploring New Heights (and Depths!)

Life In The Stairwell

Life In The Stairwell

Three junco nestlings grow up in a stairwell of a building. Juncos are adapting to urban conditions.

Though classified as “ground-nesters,” 13% of junco nests were found to be above ground level between 1998-2002, including one in a bicycle helmet. Yet at UCLA, the juncos appear to build even more of their nests off the ground. Not only that, but we’ve found our juncos nest in all sorts of weird places throughout campus. One member of the UCLA grounds crew found a junco nest in a construction hat hanging from a wall hook inside a shed in an underground parking lot! We’ve also found junco nests on cardboard boxes in a parking lot, under a strewn cardboard box in a gutter, on an electrical box 3 stories underground, 50 feet up in a palm frond, in window shutters, in pseudo-cavities in trees, on fire alarms, and on windowsills. Without a doubt, juncos’ nesting behavior is breaking new ground as these birds continue to nest in our cities.

Interestingly, a dive into recordings of junco nests have revealed some quirky behaviors. NestWatch has recorded instances of Dark-eyed Juncos nesting in nest boxes. Older literature reveals even more diversity. The UCSD juncos were not the first ones to make their way out of the mountains and into campuses. Dr. John Snyder found two juncos nesting at Stanford University in 1904. These juncos built their nest off the ground in the loose bark of a Eucalyptus tree. Sadly, Dr. Snyder collected that first nest, eggs, and one of the adult juncos in the pair as specimens before the eggs hatched, so we will never know if the pioneering pair would have been successful. Juncos were also noted to nest in old woodpecker holes and tree cavities more than a hundred years ago. They had even been found to nest in tin cans throughout the early to mid 1900s. 

Dodger The Junco

Dodger The Junco

Researchers nicknamed this Oregon form male junco "Dodger" because he liked to give them the slip.

Juncos nesting in cities are not only choosing nest sites differently, but they are also timing their breeding season differently. San Diego juncos breed for twice as long as their mountain counterparts, beginning to build nests in early March and breeding until late July/early August. Mountain-dwelling juncos on the other hand, begin nesting in May and end their breeding season in late July. We have noted similar patterns between the UCLA juncos and the UCSD juncos.

As we modify our landscapes in new ways, how is this adaptable bird changing with it? How does first egg date relate to climate and to urbanization? And how much of their behavior in cities differs from their behavior outside of cities?

A Call for Citizen Science—This Year More Than Ever

As we continue to face the crisis of COVID-19, many of us are being restricted to our homes and neighborhoods. Using this time to truly get to know the birds we share our communities with can not only bring some peace to our own lives and teach our children about our ecological community, but also help researchers determine how our environments are affecting bird nesting behavior.

Most members of our junco team have made the difficult decision to remain at home (after graduate students and the lead scientist obtained special permission from UCLA to continue research). Team leader Dr. Pamela Yeh will continue working alone in the field. Knowing that one person cannot substitute for two Ph.D. students, three Master’s students, and a dozen undergraduates, we would like to use NestWatch to coordinate remotely between researchers and shift how we do research and what data we gather. Thanks to NestWatch and the citizen-scientist community, we are hoping that together we can bolster our data on junco nesting–and other birds’ nesting behavior–across their ranges.

Specifically, we’re asking NestWatchers who live within the breeding range of any Dark-eyed Junco subspecies for help collecting data on junco first egg dates, nest height above ground, and nest success, including in urban and suburban areas. As human disturbance dramatically declines in many urban areas, we have an opportunity to learn how our landscapes are affecting bird nesting behavior and their success within the urban environment. Although we can’t visit our normal study sites, the UCLA team will also be searching for nests at our homes, as local ordinances allowand we invite you to join in, if you can.

Please note that we urge you to put your own safety first and to comply with any local or state orders regarding outdoor activity.

“Specifically, we’re asking NestWatchers who live within the breeding range of any Dark-eyed Junco subspecies for help collecting data on junco first egg dates, nest height above ground, and nest success, including in urban and suburban areas.”
Each One Unique

Each One Unique

This male Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco sports colorful leg bands so researchers can distinguish individuals at a distance.

If you’re a NestWatcher with access to outdoor space, you can look for junco nests around your home in grasses and ivy on the ground, but also in places like flower pots, hanging baskets, under a tarp, on a forgotten door wreath, and in low rock crevices. Look for behaviors like picking up grasses and food items and follow the adults from a distance to their nest site. From all of us on the junco team at UCLA, we appreciate any nesting data you can submit during this difficult time.

Note: This post has been edited to provide more detail about the adjustments that UCLA researchers and students have made to their fieldwork schedules in response to COVID-19 shelter-in-place guidelines.


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20 Comments

  1. Mary Jermyn says:

    Hi,

    I would love to help out with this because we have tons of Juncos at our feeder and in our yard. Are you interested in data/information from Oakville, Ontario, Canada?

    Thanks
    Mary Jermyn

  2. Larry Michaels says:

    I live in Olympia, WA and have many Juncos. Been wanting to build some nest boxes for chickadees and such. Can I make some kind of a nest box to put out in brush piles around my home? Plans for nest box for them????

    Thanks!!

    • Holly Faulkner, Project Assistant says:

      Hi Larry, Dark-eyed Juncos have only been documented using nest boxes a handful of times- they are not cavity-nesters. However, you can view all nest box plans we have for cavity-nesting species on our Right Bird, Right House tool, including chickadees. Click on the species pages to view a construction plan as well as placement tips and species preferences.

  3. KIm Fulton says:

    Would you like data from the interior of British Columbia Canada? We have had Juncos nesting in the hanging basket I get for mothers’ day for a number of years. Needless to say, we always let the flowers die for lack of water and enjoy the Juncos raising their broods.

  4. Russell Palubniak says:

    Have both Dark Eyed and Slate colored here in the Adirondacks. Numbers are increasing here. Will start looking for nesting sites.

  5. I will say in response to your Junco posting…I live in Clarksville, TN, and because of the warm winter here I noticed I never had the population of Juncos. There were 1 or 2…but never like we have had before!

  6. June Stephens says:

    Hello! I live in Beaverton, Oregon (suburb of Portland) and have many Dark-eyed Juncos all year round. They are busy little birds and I observe them daily at my feeders and feeding on the ground. Last year, a Junco built a cup nest approximately 5 feet above ground inside a bush by my living room window. I will look for nests.

  7. Richard says:

    We didn’t have any juncos this winter. Sometimes there are hundreds of them. Old timers call them snow birds because they show up at that time of year. We didn’t see them.

  8. Keri Dearborn says:

    A pair of Oregon juncos first stayed in our yard year-round in 2018 and have been nesting here in Woodland Hills CA ever since. (Just over the hill from UCLA). Prior to 2018 they were only winter visitors. I thought it was odd when they stayed and didn’t realize it was being studied until the article in Living Bird magazine. Spotting their nests has been tricky. Your article helped me know what to look for. Chicks fledged yesterday, but I didn’t know there was an active nest. I was able to find the used nest today and will entire in Nest Watch. The pair that stays year-round are bolder, more out-going than the migrants. They get up on the seed feeder and are aggressive at the suet feeder.

  9. Linda Shockley says:

    I don’t know if this helps or not. My husband and I went to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Annual Flower Show in March. In one of the exhibits there was a dark-eyed junco hopping around eating seeds, etc. Looked happy as a lark (to make a pun). I hope he somehow survived & got back outside when the show closed.

  10. Carolyn says:

    We have a pair of Juncos nesting in an old bird house (rectangle with hole entry). We live on the 3rd floor in the Admiral Junction neighborhood of West Seattle. I’m happy to share info, photos, video. I’d say they’re on their 3rd or 4th day of hauling nesting materials. We’ve seen them bring grass/needles, long leaves, moss, dried leaves, and some cotton string. Let us know how we can help!

    • Holly Faulkner, Project Assistant says:

      Hi Carolyn, Thanks for commenting – the best way to help is to report your nest to NestWatch, and monitor it throughout the nesting cycle. Get started by clicking on the Your Data tab, sign in (or create a free account if you do not already have one with the Cornell Lab), and you’ll have access to the data entry portal. Click “Add New Nest Site” to report where you found the nest, and then Start a New Nesting Attempt to report on this clutch. Visit the nest every 3-4 days to report how many eggs or young there are, and other information. Fill out the data online as much as you can for each nest visit, and when you’re done, summarize the nesting attempt to report the nest fate. Learn about how to reduce disturbance when monitoring nests here, and please email us with any further questions at nestwatch@cornell.edu – these comment sections are not regularly monitored.

  11. Patty Norlin says:

    I’m in Damascus, Oregon. I found a Junco (I think Oregon Junco) nest in a hanging pot of impatiens. All of my hanging pots have drip irrigation and when i spotted the nest I tried to move the drip tube, but it appears the nest was built around it. I hope the emitter is under the nest and won’t cause problems. I’ve decided to leave the water on so the plants won’t die out and expose the nest.The nest with two eggs was first spotted on May 28 and I was finally able to get another look today, June 5 and there are three eggs. Was the third egg laid close to the time of the first two? I’m anticipating hatching around the 8th or 9th.

    • Holly Faulkner, Project Assistant says:

      Hi Patty, Birds typically lay one egg per day, it’s most likely that the third egg was laid the day after you spotted two eggs in the nest. Dark-eyed Juncos need around 12-13 days for incubation, and incubation usually starts on the day the last egg was laid, so this puts the hatching day around June 9th, yes.

  12. thegbird says:

    we have A LOT of juncos during winter at my feeders.
    i have never seen them during summer before, probably because they have other food sources? I have never found a nest before though.

  13. Christine Wade says:

    Since mid May, a male darkeye Junco has come to my window and seen himself in the reflection of its 19th Century glass, often w nesting material or food in his beak. He then attacks pecking repetitively at each of the 9 panes across. I am trying to find the nest but
    so far have not and don’t want to get him even more riled up. He starts at pre-dawn (when I believe he should be chorusing) and comes back through out the day. Will he injure himself, with this reckless and obsessive defense against his own reflection?

    2100 ft altitude: Catskill Mountains near Hudson River (NY)

    • Holly Faulkner, Project Assistant says:

      Hi Christine, This junco is likely building a nest elsewhere, and taking his reflection in the glass pane as another male on his “territory”. The best wa to help prevent this is to break the relection in the glass – you can get tips on how to do so here, such as rubbing soap on the glass, or placing fabric over top.

  14. We are in Walton, NY, in the Southern Tier of the Catskills, with many Juncos. Currently we have a Junco nest on the ground, protected slightly by tall grass, about 3 feet from our cabin. The mother has been sitting in her eggs but today, possibly day 10, she is not sitting on one egg that she seems to have moved away from her.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology