The winter birds have started showing up over the last several weeks and among them are the dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Dark-eyed juncos are in the sparrow family and can be found throughout most of North America. Like other sparrows, dark-eyed juncos are typically found in semi-open, brushy areas and along woods edges. Dark-eyed juncos are also common visitors to bird feeders.
Most populations of dark-eyed juncos breed in Canada and overwinter in the U.S. In fact, they are so common during the winter that John James Audubon once referred to them as “snow birds” and some people still call them that.
The side of their lives that most of us don’t get to see is the breeding and nesting side. In the spring, the dark-eyed juncos migrate north into Canada and parts of the far northern U.S. There the female will build a nest on or near the ground. She’ll lay up to 6 eggs which she’ll incubate for approximately a week and a half to two weeks. After the eggs hatch, the young will stay in the nest for around two weeks before they fledge. While they are in the nest, both parents will feed the nestlings.
Dark-eyed juncos are primarily seed eaters, but during the spring and summer the adults may also eat some insects and other “bugs.” As nestlings, most of their diet consists of insects and other “bugs.” Because dark-eyed juncos eat so many seeds, they are often found hopping around on the ground or low in the bushes. When you find them at your bird feeder, they are often as likely to be eating seeds that have fallen to the ground as they are to be eating seeds directly from the feeder.
At one time, what we now know as the “dark-eyed junco” was divided into at least six different species based on their different color patterns and geographical ranges. However, more recent research, including genetic analysis, suggests that each of those former species is really just a sub-species of a single species – the dark-eyed junco.
The most common sub-species is the slate-colored junco, and this is the primary one found in the eastern U.S. Here in the eastern U.S., our dark-eyed junco is a plump, slate-grey colored bird with a white belly, a black eye, and white outer tail feathers. Other sub-species may have some additional colors, but they all have the white outer tail feathers. The white outer tail feathers are a key method for identifying dark-eyed juncos that are flying away from you because at that point what you often see is the backside of a grey bird with a white feather on each side of its tail.
During the winter, it is common to find dark-eyed juncos foraging or hanging out in flocks, which just makes it easier to catch a glimpse of those white outer tail feathers on at least a few of the birds if you happen to flush them. So, while you are out and about this winter, or just enjoying the birds at your feeders, I encourage you to keep an eye out for this common winter visitor.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.