On a February afternoon, I have company on the way back from a walk down the road.
About two dozen dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are foraging for seeds on the shoulder of the gravel road. They’re bouncy little gray birds, more round than slim, with a patch of russet feathers across their shoulders, as if they’re wearing capes to ward off the chill on this north-facing slope, already fallen into shadow in early afternoon. As I approach, the entire flock flies up, tittering as they scatter and vanish into the conifers next to the road. They soon emerge, though, one bird here, three birds there, their wings puttering softly as they fly farther ahead and land on the side of the road again. Soon all of them re-assemble, scratching at the dirt and peeping like chicks at a feed store in spring.
I keep up my steady walking pace, and when my steps bring me to the edge of whatever perimeter they’ve agreed to, the birds flush again, again veering into the trees over the bank of the road. They chitter more loudly and speedily as they fly, but the calls from their hidden perches are quieter, more discrete. Then, a few at a time, they swoop back out, settling still farther up the road in a loosely knit group, cheeping and pecking.
We keep going this way: me walking, the birds gathering on the road and flying into the trees before returning to the verge, skipping themselves along in front of me as the scrutchscrutchscrutchscrutch of my boots on the gravel keeps time like a metronome. They could burst away, could scatter, could swerve to the far side of the road, could stay in the trees until I pass, could resume their foraging in peace behind me, but we carry on together. We’re weaving a kinetic skein, motion and sound knitting birds to human, woods to dusty road. I walk and the birds forage-fly-perch-fly-forage a dozen times and more. Finally, at the top of the hill where a neighbor’s driveway leads away from the road, the birds angle off as I carry on straight. We’ve traveled together for a good ten minutes, covering more than a quarter of a mile.
Juncos are common here, as they are in much of the country, and stay year-round. I admire them greatly for sticking it out in winter. That the landscape feels more exposed when the grass withers and the leaves fall seems obvious, but these seasonal changes also bring a shift in scale. The birds are the same size—in fact, they’re often fluffed to relative rotundity and surely look bigger than in summer—but they seem smaller in my eyes: soft dots of gray against a backdrop made more vast by the monochromaticity of brown or (far more rarely in this dry year) white.
I have to admit that I’m also smitten by the fact that the juncos are so tolerant of me. We run in the same circles this time of year, meeting along the roads or out near the boxes where my husband feeds the horses hay in the mornings. The birds fly away to the nearest tree when I come too close, but they’ll return if I stand still, as if to say, “Oh, it’s you. We didn’t recognize you at first.” They venture into the barn, too, on really cold days, sifting through hay and chaff on the stall floors. We’ll startle one another in that setting—they don’t see me approaching, and when I roll the front door of the barn open they explode out the stall doors with a rush of wings that sounds, inside the confined space, as if it belongs to a much larger animal.
I love coming across their tracks in fresh snow, where their wiry feet create artful abstracts of fine lines and angles. When they scratch assiduously in one area, they’ll sometimes clear the snow entirely, leaving a dark lens of dirt that’s scuffled lighter toward the edge with an ombré effect.
When a pair of juncos nested inside the garden wall a couple of summers ago, I was grateful for their forbearance as I eavesdropped and stalked the family with camera in hand. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the juncos more generally: for their unfailing presence; for their seeming imperviousness when the weather turns miserable; for their businesslike gleaning; for the clean white bands that flash on either side of their tail feathers, making it easy to identify them at any distance; for the dry click they sometimes make, calling to mind a Geiger counter offering a reading of an element invisible to my senses.