By Tom Dennis
If my records are correct, the Dark-eyed Junco celebrates my fiftieth nature article, all of which have been birds with one exception. It has been a pleasure sharing with you about these beautiful members of The Creation and I think it quite fitting that this favorite “yard bird” (but aren’t they all) waited “in the wings” for this special edition!
Although we are only about fifty miles south of a narrow band of year-round populations and only two hundred miles south of their summer breeding grounds, we see these medium-sized sparrows only during late fall and throughout the winter. With a huge welcome from waiting birders, this delightful little winter bird has been arriving in big numbers since late October with many individuals passing through to wintering grounds that extend to all forty-eight contiguous states except Florida (a species that doesn’t hang with the “Floridian Snow Birds”. If you’ve overlooked this winter friend, read on to learn how to identify them and attract them to your yard.
Once known locally as Slate-colored Juncos these members of the sparrow family are fairly easy to distinguish from other sparrows by their unique coloration. They show slight differences throughout their range but locally most Dark-eyed Junco males have dark gray upperparts contrasting sharply with a white breast. The tail is dark with white feathers “flags” on the outer edges; these are quite conspicuous during flight and are a dead giveaway that you have sighted a junco. The bill is short, comes to a triangular point and is light pink to white in color. Their name describes the eye that becomes dark red with maturity. Females are similar in color patterns however the gray is more subdued and they show brown-gray on the back and wings. They average about seven inches in length and weigh in at 0.7 ounces. The junco song has several variations with all being a high pitched, almost mechanical sounding trill or rattle that is very similar to the Chipping Sparrow that has already headed south for the winter.
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The breeding range is at cooler climates in North America including almost all of Canada, Alaska, Northeastern and the Northwestern United States as far south as Arizona and California in the Rocky Mountain heights. The nest is typically a lined depression on the ground but short shrubs and trees are also used. Like the White-crowned Sparrow, they have the unique “double scratch” hopping behavior as they forage on the ground. They are common feeder birds as they eat mostly seeds during the winter months and thrive as the grounds cleanup crew; even eating their own droppings at times. Their summer diet is a combination of seeds and insects.
The Dark-eyed Junco was the most common feeder bird in North America during the 1996-1997 Project Feeder Watch season. Their population continues to thrive so you have to get this bird on your yard list which you can do by providing black oil sunflower seeds and thistle (nyjer) and make sure some get to the ground preferably under or near dense shrubs. Be sure to watch them communicate non-musically; their flash of white tail feathers serves as an alarm to other members of the flock.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Our next meeting will be held on Monday, December 2 starting at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a freelance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.