Dark-eyed juncos herald in winter

Cathy Carnes

The dark-eyed juncos seemingly arrived early this year. We are more used to seeing these birds against a backdrop of snow, not working our yet-green lawn dotted with the reds, yellows, and brown of fallen leaves searching for seeds. They are a welcome sight and a harbinger of winter to come.

According to the Cornell Lab All About Birds (AAB) website, there are 15 described races of the dark-eyed junco reflecting their regional variation. Our junco, the “slate-colored” junco which occurs in the eastern U.S., is one of the two widespread forms of the species; the other is the “Oregon” junco found across much of the western U.S.

The dark-eyed slate-colored junco is just that, mostly gray in coloring on the head, back and wings with a contrasting white belly and coal black eyes. The edges of their long tail feathers are white and easily seen when the bird takes flight. Their short, stout, light pink bill is made for seed eating. Winter’s backdrop of white sets off the beauty of the bird’s simple black and white patterning and their constant presence is good company.

Dark-eyed juncos frequently announce their arrival in our yard with a high short “chip” call repeated in rapid succession. The males, when moved to do so, according to AAB, also sing a musical trill seven to 23 notes in length and lasting up to a couple seconds.

Dark-eyed juncos are energetic sparrows, constantly on the move. Watch them and you will observe their hop-hop, peck-peck foraging behavior at work as they hunt for seeds. According to AAB, juncos prefer millet seeds but seem happy eating the sunflowers seeds we put out as well. They also eat weed and grass seeds such as buckwheat, sorrel, and lamb’s quarters. During the breeding season, insects (beetles, ants, wasps, caterpillars, flies, etc.) are included in their diet and fed to their young.

When you see one junco, you generally see more as they move about in large flocks sometimes with other birds; we often see them at our feeders with cardinals, finches and chickadees. We’ve noticed that some juncos are more aggressive when feeding, chasing off other birds. According to the AAB, this reflects a flock’s hierarchy or pecking order where those arriving first to feed tend to rank higher than those arriving after them and are not shy in demonstrating their “I got here first,” attitude.

AAB describes dark-eyed juncos as resident to medium distant migrants. Most migrate to our northern climes (Alaska and Canada) to breed, others breed in the northeast U.S., along the southern Great Lakes region (including northern Wisconsin) and in the western U.S. Their breeding habitat includes coniferous and mixed coniferous forests.

The birds are ground nesters laying three to six eggs per clutch and raising up to three broods of young during the breeding season. Most of the birds spend winter in a greater variety of habitats including open woodlands, fields, roadsides, parks, and gardens across the U.S.

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey reports, while dark-eyed junco populations have declined about 31% between 1966 and 2019, their global numbers are still high (over 200 million) and therefore of low conservation concern compared to other species of declining birds.

The dark-eyed slate-colored juncos are some of the most common birds visiting feeders fall through spring, bringing their energy and simple beauty to our everyday lives. Scuff through the fall leaves or the coming snows to fill your feeders and watch for the juncos, they will come.

Cathy Carnes is a retired biologist in Oconto who worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Green Bay Field Office and prior to that with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Branch in Buffalo, New York. As endangered species coordinator for the USFWS, she helped conserve and recover federally listed threatened and endangered species in Wisconsin.