I see Dark-eyed Juncos every winter in my Milwaukee backyard, and they never fail to chase away the dreariness and cold. After a moment or two, however, I usually turn my attention to something else. I’ve seen lots of juncos, after all. But later this year, when the small gray birds return, I will look at them with a different eye.
A new documentary has given me a fresh understanding of the birds’ behaviors and evolutionary history and an appreciation for the scientists who have been working for decades to uncover their secrets.
“Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” is an 88-minute film produced by biologists and filmmakers from Indiana University. It has been screened in Indiana and Michigan and, just recently, in Chicago at the joint meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society.
In July, it won first place in the non-commercial film division at the 30th annual Animal Behavior Film Festival in Boulder, Colorado.
You don’t have to wait for another screening to watch it; it’s available for free in eight segments on juncoproject.org and on Vimeo. And if you’d like to host a screening at a non-profit bird club, nature center, or similar group, the filmmakers would be happy to talk with you.
The film describes discoveries made by scientists such as Ellen Ketterson of Indiana University, Borja Milá of Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, and Trevor Price of the University of Chicago. We get to follow the researchers into the field and see up close how juncos are caught in mist nets, how measurements are taken, and how blood is drawn for genetic studies. The filmmakers followed Ketterson, Milá, and others to sites in the Appalachian Mountains, the Grand Tetons, Guatemala, the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, and Guadalupe Island, a small island 150 miles west of Baja.
The risk with any nature documentary is that the filmmakers will veer toward sappiness or dive too deep into the science of the subject at hand. Thankfully, director Jonathan W. Atwell and his talented crew chart a middle path. They capture the beauty of the bird and the varied landscapes it inhabits, and through interviews with key researchers, clever graphics, and a captivating narration by Indiana Public Media’s Yaël Ksander, they offer up fascinating details on discoveries and natural history.
“If you ask me why I’ve studied the junco for so long, I would say in part, because it’s so amenable to study,” says Ketterson. “It really lets you study it. Juncos live on the ground. It’s possible to study them without climbing trees. They build their nests on the ground, so you can find them. They thrive in captivity, so you can provide them with seeds, or put them in different social configurations. And they’re content. They actually reveal their biology to you.”
We learn why the various forms of Dark-eyed Junco — Slate-colored, Oregon, Pink-sided, and others — are not separate species. Conversely, we learn why the researchers believe races of Yellow-eyed Junco in Guatemala and elsewhere should be considered separate species.
As Ketterson notes early in the film, “If you want to understand evolution in action, the process of forming new species, then the junco is the bird to study.”
Finally, we visit the campus of the University of California San Diego, where, in 1983, birder Stan Walens and his daughter discovered what turned out to be a new isolated breeding population of Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos. The tale is fascinating. It demonstrates that careful observation by birdwatchers like you and I helps us all learn about birds — even the most common species that most of us don’t give a second thought. I for one won’t make that mistake again. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor