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Canyon Notes

My Favorite Bird

By Karen McBride

One of my favorite little birds in Madera Canyon can only be seen fairly easily in the dead of winter. In the summer, he is usually above 7,000 feet and a bit harder to find, unless you are up to hiking to Josephine Saddle on the way to the top of Mt. Wrightson. Now, this is a pop quiz. See if you recognize who he is.
Lots of people would call him a sparrow. He is mostly gray with a reddish-brown back and white outer tail feathers that are most noticeable when he flies. The upper half of his bill is black, but the lower half is yellow. There is black around his eye that extends toward the bill. But that eye.....ah, there is the best clue. His eye is bright yellow! He does not hop like other LBJ's (little brown jobs); instead he shuffles and sometimes scratches like a chicken when looking for his favorite seeds and insects. He is often found under seed feeders at the Chuparosa Inn and the Santa Rita Lodge in the winter.
This bird's yellow eye gives him a singularly fierce look, especially for such a small bird. Even though he's listed as being 6-1/2" in length, he usually seems smaller. Among similar species, however, the yellow eye really stands out. And, too, he usually doesn't hang out with his dark-eyed relatives, but prefers keeping to his own kind.
When our mystery bird is in a springtime courting mood, he truly gets fierce. He struts, flares his tail, sings sweetly, and often does serious battle with male intruders that include locked bills and flailing feet. And yet, his song is much lovelier than most of his sparrow-type relatives.
Have you got him yet? This one is easy; it's a Yellow-eyed Junco, of course. But seeing this bird is not so easy for anyone living outside of Southeastern Arizona and Mexico, because those are the only two places he is commonly found, and then usually only in the higher mountains. Many bird-watchers (or birders, or listers, or twitchers as they are called in the UK) make a special trip here to see our special little bird. And he's right in our back yards! Go up to Madera Canyon and become acquainted with Junco phaeonotus. He's really cute!



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