Birds: Dark-eyed Juncos returning for winter |

Birds: Dark-eyed Juncos returning for winter

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

I realize they have been here for awhile now, but I still wanted to talk about one of my favorite birds — the Junco. Is it just fate or an ancient rhythm of life that often brings the first snowfall and the first Junco sighting at the same time each year?

Whatever the explanation, Dark-eyed Juncos are often called “Snowbirds,” and many people believe their return from their northern breeding grounds does indeed foretell the return of winter’s cold and snowy weather. Even its white-belly plumage and dark-colored back reminds me of a winter scene with its “leaden sky above, and snow below.”

They are easily recognized by what looks like a cape over their head. Listen for the Junco’s “tew-tew-tew” call. It sounds like they are talking in morse code to each other.

During the winter, Juncos are sighted at more feeding areas across North America than any other bird. More than 80 percent of the participants in Project Feeder Watch reported seeing Juncos at their feeders.

Like many other members of the sparrow family, they are primarily ground feeders and are drawn to the millet and mixed seeds around the base of feeders or ground-tray feeders.

They prefer blends that contain primarily millet, but will also eat black oil sunflower. The Juncos spend their days scratching the ground underneath your feeders in search of seeds that have been covered by foliage, dirt or snow.

Juncos spend the entire winter in flocks averaging in size from six to 30 or more. Interestingly, a significant percentage of them return to the same 10-acre territory winter after winter.

When it comes to feeding, winter flocks have a dominance hierarchy with adult males searching where most seed is located in order that they may feed first, followed by juvenile males, adult females, and then young females. You can often observe individuals challenging the status of others with aggressive displays of lunges and tail flicking.

They prefer to roost in evergreens at night, but will also use tall grasses and brush piles. They return to the same roost location repeatedly, sharing it with other flock mates, but they do not huddle together. Now is a great time to attract Juncos so you can watch them throughout the season.

While watching the Juncos, you may also be treated to the sight of a Spotted Towhee. They are considerably larger than a Junco, mostly black, with reddish brown sides and a white belly. You may also notice their red eyes. The towhees will also be scratching the ground and jumping backward as they search.

Not all of the bird activity in your yard will be at your feeders. Check the ground underneath for more entertainment. That gives us something else to do when it is so bitterly cold that we don’t want to venture out.

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 birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.

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