and Drawing by Spike Knuth, Contributing Columnist
Wintertime bird feeding has become a
popular activity for birdwatchers, from novice to expert. No one, it seems,
tires of watching those little feathered dynamos as they flit about
consuming seeds at a prodigious rate.
A feeder in winter may attract a
surprising array of feathered creatures, depending on where it is located.
However, it seems that no matter where a feeder is situated, sooner or later
it will be visited by the little slate-gray birds with the white bellies,
the dark-eyed junco, one of the most common of
our wintering birds.
This bird was formerly known as the
slate-colored junco, though many people in the mid-Atlantic region simply
call it the snowbird. These birds usually return south to our area on the
breath of the first major cold front in November, often with the first
snows, which is why they’re called snowbirds. In some years a few begin
trickling in as early as the third week of October. Actually, juncos can be
reluctant to come south and will come only as far as they must in order to
have available food and shelter. Ultimately the cold, ice, and snow will
move them south.
Then too, there is a population of
juncos that nests in the highlands of the Appalachian mountains in
, and as far south as north
, which merely migrates down the mountain to the warmer foothills and
for the winter.
There are six recognizable races or
subspecies of juncos in the
, with the dark-eyed junco being the only common one in the eastern part of
the country. Juncos are dark-headed, slate-gray birds with white bellies and
pinkish bills, which measure 6 to 6¼ inches. Once in awhile you may notice
some birds that are brownish around the head or back. These are females or
first-year young. However,
juncos, a subspecies, have brown backs and tawny flanks and occasionally
If you’ve ever walked hedgerows, or
weedy-edged fields and woodlands with brushy undergrowth, you may be
familiar with the little bird’s quick, nervous flight, showing white-edged
tails and uttering its twinkling, “tsipping” or “tzeet-tzeet” call.
A flock of juncos moving through a brushy field on a windy December day
makes it appear as if the whole field is alive and moving with birds, and
their calls have often been likened to the sound of distant wind chimes.
Juncos are actually sparrows, and are
ground feeders, feeding mainly on small seeds of all kinds. Like all
finches, sparrows, buntings, and grosbeaks, they have conical bills — that
is, cone-shaped — perfect tools for crushing, mashing and eating seeds.
“Junco” comes from old Latin meaning “reed bunting.” Its Latin name,
juncus, means “rush” or similar plant, while hyemalis, from the Latin
hiemalis, means “of or belonging to winter.” The biologist Carl
Linnaeus, who named and classified most birds, was from
and winter was the only time he would see the bird. So it’s been tied to
winter as far back as the 1700s.
With the first warm days of the coming
spring season, as early as late-February in some years but usually sometime
in March, juncos will head for their northern spruce- and fir-forest
breeding grounds. A few may linger until the end of April, at which time you
may get to hear their song, which is a trill not unlike that of the chipping
sparrow. The junco’s main breeding range is the boreal forests of most of
, and states of the northern
Juncos are attracted to cutover areas
containing slash piles, the edges of logging roads, and brushy edges of
forest openings. It builds a well-hidden nest in a brush pile, in grass
tufts, in the root system of an uprooted tree, or in banks of dense,
overhanging vegetation. The nest is built of mosses, grasses, bark fibers,
animal hair, and fine grasses.
The little birds are almost mouse-like
as they climb through the brush. About four to six eggs are laid, bluish- or
greenish-white with brown speckles. Incubation takes about 12-13 days, and
the young birds must be ready to move when weather turns cold. However, they
are very hardy and will stay until severe weather or food scarcity forces
In winter juncos can be seen in
hedgerows, open fields, or along brushy woodland’s edges, along roadsides,
often in the company of white-throated sparrows. They scratch in the grasses
and leaves for a variety of plant seeds, and they will also eat insects and
Juncos will come to platform feeders,
hopper-type feeders, and even tube-type finch feeders, to feed on sunflower
and thistle seed; but they prefer feeding on the ground, in the vegetable
garden, or often tight against the house in shrubs where they find seeds and
other edibles. Enjoy them and their antics this winter.