ALWAYS IN SEASON: Juncos, cranes are different, yet still similar

Stop reading now if you don't know the difference between a dark-eyed junco and a sandhill crane. A junco would fit in the palm of your hand. A crane standing next to you would reach you navel, and perhaps your chest (its neck extended, of course...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

Stop reading now if you don't know the difference between a dark-eyed junco and a sandhill crane.

A junco would fit in the palm of your hand. A crane standing next to you would reach you navel, and perhaps your chest (its neck extended, of course).

Yet both are unmistakably birds.

There similarities and their differences underscore the incredible variety in the bird world.

Cranes and juncos share the one unique attribute of birds. They are feathered.


Likewise, both can fly (though flight is not limited to birds).

Both feed by taking food directly into the mouth (though this characteristic isn't limited strictly to birds either).

Both are gray in color. In fact, a junco riding a crane's back might effectively disappear --except, of course, no junco would resort to such a tactic. It's a myth that smaller birds migrate by riding on the backs of their larger kin.

Perhaps the most salient similarity between this disparate species, however, is the periodicity. They show up here at about the same time.

For the most part, juncos and cranes are migrants. They move north in spring and south in autumn, often at about the same time. So, it is quite usual to encounter both species in a single outing, as I did last week, a random occurrence that set off this rumination.

It's true that cranes did once nest in our area, and persistent reports from rural areas in both Minnesota and North Dakota are evidence that they still do.

For most of us, however, the cranes are a phenomenon of migration. Quite large flocks of them pass over the Red River Valley both spring and fall. They are easily recognized by their deep-toned, rolling gurgle -- a noise that may have inspired the throat singers of central Asia.

Sandhill cranes can be seen on any autumn day with favorable conditions -- clear skies and following winds, generally from the north or northwest. The birds move with necks extended, helping distinguish them from other long-necked birds, such as egrets and herons, which like to tuck their necks onto their shoulders, requiring them to bend their necks. Cranes seldom set a direct course. Instead, they coast along on rising thermals --warm air coming up from cleared ground. Finding one, they circle above it, allowing the air currents themselves, rather than their own efforts, to propel them onward.


Cranes soar, in other words, more than they fly.

In our area, sandhill cranes are most often seen aloft. Juncos are almost always seen on the ground.

Few species are more committed to terrestrial existence than the junco, and few species are more successful.

Despite their skulking ways and their rather plain coloration, juncos are nearly as conspicuous as cranes, in their own way. At this time of year, juncos might be encountered in almost any backyard, farmyard, park or green space.

They are frequent visitors to bird feeding stations, too.

Dark-eyed juncos are slate gray, like sandhill cranes. Like sandhill cranes, they tend to occur in flocks, sometimes quite large flocks.

Juncos display two marks that make identification fairly easy -- and qualify the species for first place on a young birder's life list. To begin with, they are rather tame, which allows quite close observation. While they are uniformly gray in color on the back and chest, their breasts are quite bright white, and the color is set off by a clear line across the chest of adult birds. In flight, the birds show white in the outer feathers of the tail, pretty much definitive at this time of year (though a source of some confusion during summer months).

These are only two of the migratory species making their way through the Red River Valley this first week of October. Get your feeders ready; northern sparrows will be drifting through in the next couple of weeks. And polish up your binoculars, the better to see the great migration of waterfowl that takes place here every autumn.


In addition to juncos, something upwards of a dozen finches will move through in the next six weeks. In addition to cranes, something upwards of a dozen species of wading birds will appear.

Plus a couple of dozen kinds of waterfowl.

Autumn is a good time for bird lovers.

Mike Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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