Saturday, December 06, 2008

How Far Can a Junco Hop?


Caption: Dark-eyed Junco photographed in Michigan by Don Virgovic and used courtesy of the USDA Forest Service Find-a-Photo.
Everyone’s familiar with the characteristic hopping behavior of Dark-eyed Juncos as they search the ground for food. How far does a junco normally hop when looking for food, and how far can they hop when they really want to get somewhere fast? Neither of those questions had ever occurred to me until earlier this afternoon.

Marjorie was standing at the patio door looking out on the snowy winter landscape when she muttered something about “birds on snowshoes.” That caught my attention. Wandering over to where she was standing, I discovered junco footprints in the freshly-fallen snow that covered the patio. One set, in particular, was particarly noticeable because of the length of the “stride.”

The scientist in me required that I take some measurements. The tracks were in soft, fluffy snow that was about 1.5 inches deep. Intervals (in inches) between successive paired footprints (as measured from the “palm” of the left foot for consistency) were as follows:: 6.2 - 7.3 - 7.6 - 8.0 - 6.1 - 6.7 - 10.2 - 9.6 - 10.5 - 9.5 - 5.0. This bird covered 86.7 inches in 11 hops before taking flight, or an average of 7.9 inches/hop, pretty impressive for a species that averages about 6 inches in length!

I also learned one other interesting piece of information: this bird always landed with the left foot slightly ahead of the right foot. What was particularly interesting about this is that other tracks in the snow clearly showed birds who hopped with the right foot slightly forward. Are there left-footed and right-footed juncos? Do individual birds consistently favor one foot over the other? Or do they switch sides?

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