J UNCO'S feather coat and hood were the color of slate, and his feather vest was white. There was nothing really showy about this neat dark gray and white bird unless it was his tail. His central tail-feathers were dark slate or sooty-colored, nearly black, and his outer tail-feathers were white. When he flew, he showed the white margins of his tail in rather a flashy way.
Junco spent most of the year on Holiday Hill near a clump of evergreen trees. These stood on a part of the hill where no fires had burned for many years and they had had a good chance to grow tall and spread their broad branches.
Not far from these trees was a bubbling spring. The water that flowed from it was so cold that the ground near it was cool even on the hottest summer days.
It was, perhaps, because of the trees and the spring that Junco stayed on Holiday Hill, for he liked cool places. If he had not found a comfortable spot on that hill he probably would have gone elsewhere. He might have traveled to the edge of some forest far to the north. Or, after he had flown about a hundred miles away, he might have found a hill high enough to be called a mountain. And there, near the snow that capped the mountain even in summer, he might have chosen to stay.
However, as it was, Junco was quite happy on Holiday Hill. It was easy for him to find plenty of food there, and good things to eat helped to keep him contented. He liked blueberries; and for about eight weeks, he could pick all he wished of these round juicy fruits.
Junco needed meat, too, and he hunted for it himself. He went here and there on his hunting trips so that he led rather an active life.
There were some little queer-shaped, long-snouted beetles, called weevils, that had a very good flavor; and Junco flew to the tops of some pine trees when he was hungry for them.
These weevils laid their eggs in the growing tips of pine trees. The young that hatched from their eggs were small grubs that ate the inside parts of the top, or leading, pine shoots. Of course such grubs were not good for the pines. So the more of the beetles Junco could catch before they laid their eggs, the better for these lovely trees.
It was Junco who helped take care of the pine that grew in a crack in the top of a great boulder. On many a morning, while the day was still cool, he hunted among the branches at the top of that tree and often found a weevil there for a part of his breakfast.
Junco did a great deal for the blueberries, too. There were several sorts of beetles and many kinds of caterpillars and various other insects that fed on the leaves or the fruit of these bushes. Junco captured hundreds of these and so earned his fruit while he hunted for his meat.
Of course the little gray and white bird did not reason about his food. He simply swallowed whatever tasted good to him. He did not know that there would be more berries if he ate the insects he found on the bushes. But Uncle David understood what Junco and the other birds were doing, and welcomed them in his fields.
He often said to whichever niece or nephew happened to be visiting Holiday Farm: "The birds help take care of the berry crop. So it is only fair that they should have part of the berries to eat. They are working for their board."
Plenty of food and a comfortable climate were good for Junco's health. But they would not have been enough, just in themselves, to keep him as happy as he was. He needed companionship, too, for he was a sociable, affectionate little chap; and it really would have been a pity if he had had a lonely life.
So you will be glad to learn that another bird was often with Junco on his hillside picnics and hunting trips. She wore a feather suit very much like his, though the gray parts were not so dark. Since she was his mate, we may call her Mrs. Junco.
Just what Junco called her, I cannot tell you, for he did not use words when he spoke to her. At least he did not use any words that human beings can understand. But each bird made queer little chirps and clinking sounds which must have meant something to the other.
Perhaps, when he chirped one way, he was asking, "Where are you?" It may be that her answering notes were to say, "I'm over here, now."
It seems likely enough that another sort of chatter may have been Junco's manner of calling: "Oh, I'm having the most delightful luck with my hunting! Come and see what I'm finding and catch some, too."
And I think her cheerful reply may have meant something like "I'm on my way," because she flew over to join Junco at once, displaying her white tail-feathers as she went.
Then there were Junco's warbles which were so soft and gentle that they seemed like sweet whispered bits of songs. What did they mean? Perhaps, nothing at all; except that he was so very happy that he simply could not keep still!
In May, the two Juncos hunted for something besides food. They looked for the best place on the hill for a nest. The spot they chose was a bit of ground not far from the cold spring and the clump of evergreens.
The birds were quite busy for several mornings building the nest. They made the outer frame of shreds of bark and little roots and old grass. For a lining they gathered softer pieces of the same sort which they used with some hair they were fortunate enough to find.
The slanting side of a rock leaned over their little house lot and sheltered the nest. In this pleasant nook Mrs. Junco spent most of her time for a while.
Soon after the nest was finished she laid an egg in it. The eggshell was bluish white, prettily marked with different shades of purple and brown. Some of the dark blotches formed a little wreath about the larger end of the egg.
Mrs. Junco laid one egg each day until there were five of the dainty things in the nest. Then she began keeping them warm by sitting on them so that they were covered by her soft under feathers. She stayed there most of the time, herself, though now and then Mr. Junco guarded the nest while she went away for a little change. At such times she took a drink at the spring and found some food; but she did not leave her eggs very long.
After nearly twelve days the baby birds that had been growing all the time inside of the lovely shells were large and strong enough to hatch. They were queer-looking little things until their feathers grew.
These five young Juncos were so hungry that their father and mother did not have much time for rest, except at night, until the babies were old enough to leave the nest and hunt for themselves. A diet of insects was better than any other food for the growing youngsters; and you may be sure that Mr. and Mrs. Junco had many lively hours finding enough to put into those gaping mouths.
Of course the Juncos were as quiet and careful as possible when they were flying to and from their nest. But one day two girls happened to find the secret place. These cousins came to the spring for a drink—and there on a near‑by branch was Mrs. Junco with her bill full of insects.
However, these children knew what to do. They slipped out of sight among some bushes to hide. They were so still that after a few minutes Mrs. Junco felt that it was safe to visit her nest and feed her young.
It was a bit surprising to see how the young birds differed from the old Juncos. Even after their feathers were grown and they were leaving their nest, they did not look the same. For where the old birds were slate-colored, the youngsters were grayish brown and pale buff. And they were spotted and streaked with dark or blackish marks above and below.
However, before winter the young birds shed their baby feathers. In their second suits they looked much like their father and mother. They had lost their dark spots and streaks, though they were still rather brown.
During the fall days when bright leaves were dropping from the trees, juncos that had nested in far northern places traveled southward. Some stopped in southern New England and some went much farther.
The Juncos of Holiday Hill, however, did not spend their winter in the South. They did not, indeed, go more than a short flight from their summer home.
In the hedge that bordered the meadow, at the foot of the hill, were some evergreen trees in a more sheltered place than those on the slope. Here the Junco family often spent the night. They found seeds for breakfast and some for other meals on the plants near the meadow.
One morning when they woke they looked upon a strange world. The hill was a great white mound. The field, too, had become white in the night. Piles of fluffy white stuff lay on the pine boughs about them.
The young birds had never seen snow before. They did not seem to mind the cold weather; but it was hard for them to find seeds when there was so much snow in the way.
But Mr. and Mrs. Junco had both seen the snows of more than one winter. They flew here and there and called cheerfully when they came to some weedy tips which held their seeds above the snow. Then, suddenly, they seemed to remember something pleasant. Perhaps the snow reminded them. For on many a snowy morning, the winter before, they had found plenty of seeds quite easily.
They flew to the barns of Holiday Farm, and the young birds went with them. There on the floor of an open shed they found a lot of soft bits that had been swept from the hayloft and scattered in the shed. In the midst of this dry stuff was a handful of clover seeds. A little to one side lay a heap of sand and fine gravel.
Junco and his family did not know how their winter breakfast happened to be spread in this convenient place. They ate what they needed and flew away. Then they came again when they wished another meal, just as they had been going to the seedy outdoor places before the snow fell. They were very cheerful when they visited the shed and chattered cozily over their food.
No, the hungry birds did not know who swept the broken bits from the hayloft and brought fresh seeds and fine gravel so that there was always enough each day. But four young people who were spending the winter with Uncle David knew all about it.
And, perhaps, it would be hard to tell whether the birds had a happier time eating their treats than the children of Holiday Farm had while they scattered the seeds or watched their cheery feathered guests.