Dark-eyed juncos Doug Hitchcox photo

I have always had numerous juncos wherever I have lived in Cumberland and York counties every winter. This year in Parsonsfield they arrived as always in early November and were here for a few weeks, but I haven’t seen a single one since. I have never gone a winter without juncos in numerous numbers. Where are they?

– Pam Pride, Parsonsfield

This has been a very interesting season for many of our winter birds, both common residents and irregular visitors. The most important factor for a bird’s survival in winter is the availability of food, and some years we’ll see different species move large distances because of food scarcities. This is often referred to as an irruption, much like we saw with pine siskins this past fall when they descended on feeders by the dozens, if not hundreds. Most of those kept moving south as they searched for seed crops to support them. Another good example of an irruption is when we see snowy owls come south in large numbers, like the massive flight during the winter of 2013-14.

Dark-eyed junco. Ariana van den Akker photo/Courtesy of Maine Audubon

Our dark-eyed juncos, like their sparrow cousins, are primarily grain-eaters in the winter, feeding on seeds of mostly grassy plants we’d probably consider weeds. You may recall most of the state being listed with “moderate” drought conditions last summer, becoming “severe” nearly statewide going into the fall, which apparently caused many of those weeds the juncos love to fail. Anecdotally, I was birding on Monhegan this fall and experienced the usual push of sparrow migration in late September and early October, but surprisingly had a huge push of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos again in early November. We counted over 200 juncos in a single yard that had hay spread over it, which now seems like an obvious indication of “our” juncos pushing south as food was becoming scarce.

Thanks to community science projects like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird, which collects reports of birds all over the world, we can see real-time data about where our birds are, or in this case, aren’t. Frequency is a good measure to look at in this case, which tells us the percentage of all the checklists submitted that include sightings of a certain bird. Looking at dark-eyed juncos in Maine at this time last year, they were being reported on 30 percent of checklists, but this year it is only about 12 percent. Going on our theory from earlier that “our” birds went farther south looking for food, I checked out a few states where a hungry junco might wander: In Connecticut, junco frequency is 12 percent higher than last year, Pennsylvania is 27 percent higher, and Maryland 22 percent higher. So our juncos are still out there. I’ll bet we start seeing them wandering back to Maine by the end of March as they get ready to breed this spring.

Sometimes, just let nature take its course

This weekend I saw a three-legged deer feeding close to houses. I’ve seen two such deer, and I’m not sure if I should report them or not. I know this one is free and is living and I see other deer with it, but my heart breaks to see it. Was it hurt by a car? Was it snared? Could it get infections? Do I just let it live free or get animal rescue? Thank you.

– Joan Souza, Portland

The wilderness is a challenging and difficult place to survive. Living in Maine, we are very fortunate to be able to experience a close connection with a lot of the state’s wildlife, with many species even thriving in some of our more urban environments. With so many encounters, we are bound to eventually see the harsher side of many animal’s wild lives, which ranges from natural predation to unlucky injuries or disease. Most people have an innate desire to want to help creatures in need, so I’ll provide some recommendations of what you can do, and perhaps more importantly when, or if, you should act.

It is important to note that only trained professionals should attempt to rehabilitate any wildlife. Without knowing proper treatment, a well-intentioned person is likely to do more harm than good if attempting to help an injured animal. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife recommends that you contact one of their biologists or game wardens if you encounter an injured game species like deer, bear, moose, or wild turkey. They also have 44 wildlife rehabilitators listed on their website who specialize in other wildlife, from aquatic mammals to reptiles and bats to birds. The game warden dispatch and rehab list can be found at: mefishwildlife.com (search for “injured wildlife”).

Knowing when intervention is needed can be tricky. My naturalist perspective is that we generally should be more hands off. Literally, stop touching the wildlife. It is an instinctual response to want to hold and protect something in need, but with a wild animal that could be causing stress (which alone can be deadly), worsening an existing injury, or putting yourself in harm’s way if the animal’s reaction is aggressive. While I often advocate for “letting nature take its course,” it is when we see injuries that are human-caused that I’d feel an obligation to find help. In the case of these three-legged deer, if they appear to be healthy, I’d leave well enough alone. But if you have concerns for their safety, call a warden.

I’m aware that could lead to the argument that humans have changed the landscape so much that we have had an impact on all the wildlife around us, so I’ll leave you with a few recommendations for minimizing our damage, rather than thinking we’ll rehab our animals out of any and every situation.

• Keep your distance. Remember, no touching.

• Don’t feed wild animals. Bird feeders are fine, but habituation of mammals often leads to disaster for that animal.

• Don’t be a litterbug. Trash, especially food scraps, tossed on the side of the road will attract animals, which often leads to vehicle strikes.

• Keep your cats indoors. Free-ranging domestic cats kill (at a minimum) 1.3 billion birds and 6.3 billion mammals annually in the United States.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.