Birds in the Heartland: Dark-eyed Junco

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Naturalist
Photo by Dave Menke, USFWS.

It begins with stillness now, the morning.

The cacophony of bird song has diminished.

In its place, the soft murmur of wind and the quiet, distinctive chip of the cardinal begin the day. As light progresses the chickadees become active, flitting to and fro collecting seed. Soon crows are calling in the distance and, almost without notice, our migrants from the north make their entrance in grey cloak with white breast, a subtle signal that colder days have arrived.

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is a member of the Sparrow family. Often called “snowbirds,” they are the harbinger of winter for those of us in this neighborhood. In summer, they nest in the coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska and are one of the few birds that migrate to our area for the winter. Juncos migrate at night at very low altitudes, making them vulnerable to collisions with communication towers or other structures.

These cheeky birds are a delight to watch as they hop under the feeders in search of seeds. Juncos, along with other members of the Sparrow family, practice an interesting foraging method called “riding.” They fly up to a seed cluster at the top of a grass stem and “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it.

You can recognize these small, 6-inch birds by their grey upper body feathers, cream colored bellies, pink beaks and white outer tail feathers that flare out when displaying or flying up from the ground.

Junco

Each winter flock of Juncos has a dominance hierarchy with adult males at the top, then juvenile males, then adult females and young females at the bottom. You can often observe individuals challenging the status of others with aggressive displays of lunges and tail flicking.

When night draws near Juncos prefer to roost in evergreens but will also use brush piles or tall grass clumps. To help them battle the cold they have 30 percent more feathers (by weight) in the winter than they do in summer.

Dark-eyed Junco, (Junco hyemalis), Pale Adult Male, in the Morro Bay Heron Rookery 2009

If you have these entertaining birds in your yard you can support them by using a feeder slightly elevated off the ground, filled with millet and hulled sunflower seeds. Consider leaving some of the weeds standing as a food source and build a small brush pile that can be used as cover from weather and predators.

Listen for the call of the Junco when you are out and about in your yard or on a trail. It’s a soft reminder that even in the cold, life abounds!