W inter is my favorite time of year for bird-watching, so I love when the juncos arrive in the fall. Dark-eyed juncos, along with their white-throated sparrow companions, started arriving several weeks ago and will remain with us through spring. The juncos’ arrival signifies that, despite the extreme New England winter weather that lies ahead, there will indeed be birds to see.
I enjoy looking out the window on these cold mornings at the area under the bird feeders and counting the juncos. At first I see two or three, plus a white-throated sparrow or two. Closer inspection often yields a dozen or more of each species. The dark-eyed junco is the name given to each of the types of junco in the U.S. In the East we have the “slate-colored junco.” The West has several other types of junco, such as “Oregon junco,” “white-winged junco” and “yellow-eyed junco.”
Juncos, often referred to as a “snowbird,” are small gray birds with white breasts and pink bills. Males are a dark gray while females and young are lighter brownish gray. They show their white outer tail feathers when flying away.
Yes, juncos are fairly ordinary looking birds, but extraordinary in so many other ways.
I’m borrowing words in that previous sentence from a great new film called “Ordinary Extraordinary Junco.” The project is the work of a team of biologists and a film student from Indiana University. Funded by the National Science Foundation and Indiana University, the film can be watched in chapters or in whole (about 90 minutes). It debuted earlier this year and continues to gain in popularity through word of mouth and screenings held throughout the country. It may also be downloaded at www.juncoproject.org.
A screening of the film will be held Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Keene State College’s Putnam Arts Hall. The Harris Center for Conservation Education, The Monadnock Conservancy and Keene State College are hosting the screening.
“The idea was to make a short film on the urban junco,” Jonathan Atwell, one of the biologists, said. “We realized there is so much science out there and it evolved into a larger project. It’s not something we envisioned happening.”
The team chose the junco to highlight for several reasons. Scientific research of the junco goes back more than 100 years, so there was already a base upon which to build. Juncos are also a fascinating study in evolution and diversity, with as many 22 different types on the continent. Also, juncos are highly relatable for most people. Most people have seen them and even have them in their own backyards. In this case, the filmmakers hope familiarity breeds curiosity.
“Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” covers the biology, physiology, behavior and genetics of the junco. Although the field and lab research was highly scientific, the film presents the material in a way that engages a general audience.
“It was a learning experience for all of us,” Atwell said. “We had to learn to take the science and research and make it digestible for the audience.”
By choosing the junco, the team also hopes that viewers can draw a connection to threatened habitats, Atwell said. The junco may winter in urban and suburban backyards, but its summer breeding grounds are places such as the boreal forest or Guadalupe Island.
The biologists at Indiana University are already thinking about their next project. Atwell said they are considering making additional chapters to Ordinary Extraordinary Junco or making separate short films about the junco.
“We joke that there’s no end in sight,” Atwell said.
That would be just fine with me. I’d much rather watch a nature film or documentary than most of the other garbage that’s out there.
I agree with the final line of the film: “So the next time you see a little gray bird — even in your own backyard — remember to take a second look and consider all that can be learned from the Ordinary Extraordinary Junco.”