It’s always fun to see a new bird; even if it is an old “friend” that you are seeing for the first time this season. Birders call this a first-of-season bird.
Yesterday, I saw my first-of-season Dark-eyed Junco. It was alone looking for seeds under the hopper feeder. This solitary sighting, however, is not usually the case as we move closer to winter.
Junco’s are known for flocking together in winter. They will hang in groups averaging from six to thirty birds. Having lots of eyes in the flock affords the group better protection from predators than being a loner.
They typically return to the same location each winter staying within an area of about ten acres.
They, like other ground-feeding birds, are weed seed specialists in winter. They really like millet, sunflower seeds and weed seeds like chickweed, ragweed, knotweed, pigweed, lamb’s quarters and crabgrass.
Leave some ornamental grasses or other tall-stemmed seed plants in your yard so you can watch for an interesting foraging technique called “riding.” Juncos fly up to a seed cluster on the top of a plant stem and “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it.
Show juncos some love with a small brush pile. It’s like a magnet as a social gathering place. They might even use it as an overnight roost sharing it with other flock mates.
When did you see your first-of-season junco? If they aren’t back in your yard yet, be on the lookout for these friendly reminders that winter is on its way.
Juncos are full of shades of gray. Perhaps that is why they are often equated to the gray-leaden skies of winter. But, do all Juncos look the same? Let’s take a closer look.
At first glance the juncos browsing under your feeders or nearby bushes may all look the same. With further inspection, you may start noticing some are paler than others. These are the females. The darker-colored birds are the males.
Notice the difference in the birds pictured above. The darker one is a male Slate-colored Junco. The paler two are females. But what happens when you get a junco that just doesn’t seem to fit what you expect to see? Such as the junco pictured below.
The Dark-eyed Junco is a complex group of birds made up of many subspecies. They are all called dark-eyed; but, each subspecies has its own name and color distinctions to differentiate from the other Dark-eyed Junco subspecies.
The predominant subspecies include Slate-colored, Oregon, Pink-sided, Gray-headed, White-winged and Red-backed. They have varying color patterns that distinguish them from the other subspecies; but, all have some things in common. They are all the same size, about 6 ¼” long; have white outer tail feathers; have a bill and belly that are whitish and all scratch on the ground foraging for seeds.
The real challenge of subspecies identification comes into play when Dark-eyed Juncos hybridize between subspecies. The second-pictured bird seems to be just that, a mix between the Oregon and Slate-colored subspecies. This makes a positive subspecies identification quite the challenge.
For most areas, juncos are starting to move from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds. No matter the specific subspecies, now is a great time to take a closer look and try to spy the different shades of gray in Dark-eyed Juncos.
What juncos are at your feeders?
Just like we change some of our habits for winter, birds can behave very differently in winter compared to summer.
Each morning I wait with my youngest daughter at the bus stop. As the sun is pulling into the sky, without fail, flocks and flocks of American Robins fly overhead. They are leaving their overnight, congregational roost and heading out to feed together. Normally found alone or in pairs in the summer, it is easier to survive the winter in a group than on their own.
Individual territories are no longer being held by Northern Cardinals; they are flocking together for night-time roosting and day-time feeding parties. When it comes to visiting busy backyard feeders, they prefer to be the so-called “early birds” beating the morning rush. They also like to wait till the evening rush is over and be the last to visit backyard feeders.
Watching a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos at feeders is a fascinating business. Almost like a concentric ring of circles, each winter-flock of juncos has a dominance hierarchy. The adult males are often in the prime, center spot of a food source followed by juvenile males, then adult females and finally young females. This is why many female juncos travel farther south than most of the males; less competition for food.
American Goldfinches also have a dominance hierarchy; however, it changes between summer and winter. Female American Goldfinches are dominant over males in the summer (presumably because they do the nest building, egg laying and brooding) and appear to be subservient to males in the winter.
Take a closer look at bird behavior at your feeders this winter. What changes do you see?
OK, here’s a random question. What is the most common bird found at bird feeders across the continent every winter?
Downy Woodpecker? Black-capped Chickadee? House Finch?
No, it’s the Dark-eyed Junco!
And I know that fact because for 25 years people just like you have been participating as a citizen scientist as part of the Project FeedWatch program administered by the Cornel Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.
Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. “FeederWatchers” periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broad scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
Since the program began in 1987, FeederWatchers have submitted more than 1.6 million checklists from 45,000 locations across North America. Their data have helped track the spread of diseases such as West Nile virus and House Finch eye disease, document the rapid colonization of Eurasian Collared-Doves in North America and charted an alarming, continent wide decline in Evening Grosbeaks
The 25th year of data collection starts on November 12, so go to Project FeederWatch on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site for more information on how to participate.
Fun Fact Here
If you are a past FeederWatcher, please share your experiences with our readers by leaving a comment.
Juncos and snow just seem to go together.
So needless to say I was a little worried yesterday when I spotted the first of the season Dark-eyed Junco at my feeders.
With so many early season snow storms around the country this year, I am sure a lot of people have experienced the junco’s impeccable timing for a snowy return.
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 slate-colored back reminds one of a winter scene with its “leaden sky above, and snow below.”
During the winter, juncos are sighted at more feeding areas across North America than any other bird. Over 80% of the participants in Project FeederWatch reported seeing juncos at their feeders. A research study estimated the North American population of Dark-eyed Juncos at approximately 630 million.
Juncos spend the entire winter in flocks averaging in size from six to 30 or more birds.
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.
Like many other members of the sparrow family, they are primarily ground-feeding birds and are drawn to the millet and mixed seeds around the base of your feeders.
Leave us a comment and let us know if your Snowbirds have returned and if the snow came with them, too.
Fall is one of my favorite times of year to head into the wilderness. The earthy smells, the crisp air, the crunch of leaves, squirrels squeakily chewing on tree nuts and cones, birds flitting around foraging for insects and seeds quietly talking to each other with single-note calls.
Now, we do our fair share of camping. But, we haven’t done much wilderness camping. So, I figured it was time to introduce my kids to this favorite pastime through backpacking. But first, they needed to be introduced to the mountains and what to expect.
What better way and time to do it then in the Great Smoky Mountains with the autumn leaf show. So, we packed up the van and headed out to day-hike part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park.
The whole scene was gorgeous with mountain streams and waterfalls, bears preparing for winter, listening to and watching Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, Pileated Woodpeckers and more.
We visited an AT shelter. This was one of the nicest shelters I have ever seen. It even had a privy; what luxury for a backpacker! There was a watering hole just down the trail and they didn’t balk at it.
Some very memorable highlights included flushing a Roughed Grouse, my son hearing a Barred Owl so far away, even I missed it at first, and a Northern Waterthrush serenading us as we departed the mountains following a stream on the last day.
I think they are ready for our big mountain wilderness backpacking trip for next Spring. Time to start planning.
Dark-eyed Juncos are on the move. They are found across North America; year-round in some areas, but most areas just have them in winter or summer.
Be on the look out. They can be very regular feeder visitors with the right food and presentation.
Learn more about juncos by clicking here – http://www.wbu.com/education/juncos.html
See their range and learn even more about juncos by clicking here – http://whatbird.wbu.com/obj/125/overview/Dark-eyed_Junco.aspx