Feathered Friends

The Dark-Eyed Junco

Story 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 Maryland and Virginia , and as far south as north Georgia , which merely migrates down the mountain to the warmer foothills and Piedmont for the winter.

There are six recognizable races or subspecies of juncos in the United States , 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, Oregon juncos, a subspecies, have brown backs and tawny flanks and occasionally wander east.

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 Sweden 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 Canada , Alaska , and states of the northern U.S.

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 them south.

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 wild fruits.

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.


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