Birding: Loving dark-eyed juncos |

Birding: Loving dark-eyed juncos

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

I am probably one of the few people who are somewhat sorry to see winter end. Why? Primarily the departure of some of my favorite winter birds, like the junco.

Not only do I like their antics, but also their behaviors. Let’s take a closer look at the juncos.

The dark-eyed junco is currently divided into six distinct populations that include the following: Oregon, pink-sided, white-winged, slate-colored, gray-headed, and red-backed. There are an additional 12 subspecies divided among these populations. In this area, we have primarily the Oregon and gray-headed varieties, with occasional slate-colored and pink-sided types.

Dark-eyed juncos are often called “snowbirds,” possibly due to the fact that many people believe their return from their northern breeding grounds foretells the return of cold and snowy weather. Another possible source of the nickname may be the white-belly plumage and slate-colored back of the junco, which has been described as “leaden skies above, snow below.”

Juncos spend the entire winter in flocks averaging in size from six to 30 or more birds.

They tend to return to the same area each winter. Chances are that you have many of the same birds at your feeder this winter that you had in previous years. Visiting flocks of juncos will usually stay within an area of about 10 acres during their entire winter stay.

To avoid the competition of food sources, many female juncos migrate earlier and go farther south than most of the males. Male juncos tend to spend the winter farther north in order to shorten their spring migration and thus gain the advantage of arriving first at prime breeding territories. Male juncos usually return and reclaim the same breeding territory year after year. Juncos migrate at night at very low altitudes and are susceptible to collisions with communication towers and other structures.

Each winter flock of juncos has a dominance hierarchy with adult males at the top, then juvenile males, 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 searching for food or claiming their territory.

To be protected from the wind, juncos prefer to roost in evergreens at night, but will also use tall grasses and brush piles. They return to the same roost location repeatedly and will share it with other flock mates, but they do not huddle together. Also to help stay warm, juncos have 30 percent more feathers (by weight) in the winter than they do in summer.

Partners in Flight currently estimates the North American population of dark-eyed juncos at approximately 260 million, second only to the American Robin in overall population size in North America. A separate research paper estimates that the junco population could actually be as high as 630 million.

According to Project Feeder Watch, juncos are sighted at more feeding areas across North America than any other bird. More than 80 percent of those responding report juncos at their feeders. A study in New Hampshire on the foraging habitats of the slate-colored juncos found that they spent more than 65 percent of their time on the ground, 20 percent in shrubs, 16 percent in saplings or low trees. They were never observed in the canopy of large trees.

Juncos, along with some other members of the sparrow family, practice an interesting foraging method called “riding.” They fly up to a seed cluster on the top of a grass stem and “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it. Juncos are known to burrow through snow in search of seeds that have been covered over. On an annual basis, a junco’s diet is made up of approximately three parts seeds to one part insects. During the nesting period, the percent of insects can increase up to 50-60 percent of their diet.

Juncos typically have two broods per year with the female building her nest on or near the ground and laying three to five eggs. The male does not incubate the eggs, but does deliver food to the young and helps the female to defend against predators. The young leave the nest in 9-12 days. Studies have shown that dark-eyed junco’s nests are the victim of predators between 20-80 percent of the time. Rodents such as chipmunks and deer mice are probably the major predators on the eggs of juncos.

Hopefully you will begin enjoy the juncos as much as I do. Until next winter!

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column.

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