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The Juncos I Have Come to Know

Updated on June 26, 2013
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At a very young age Connie learned from her Grandma Pearl to observe and love backyard birds. She stills feeds and studies them everyday.

'Slate Gray' Dark-Eyed Junco

Juncos stay busy all day long foraging for insects and weed seeds.
Juncos stay busy all day long foraging for insects and weed seeds. | Source

I Never met a junco I didn’t like! I never met one before I moved to our new house in the woods, either. My first encounter was an unknowing one. While we were looking at the property, at twilight no less, I kept hearing rustling in the leaves somewhere nearby. I couldn’t make out anything in particular, so I was a little anxious as to what animal might be ready to pounce on me from the dense, darkening woods!

Here in Upstate New York, my juncos ( Junco hyemalis) stay year round.  This hardy little guy doesn't seem to mind the cold!
Here in Upstate New York, my juncos ( Junco hyemalis) stay year round. This hardy little guy doesn't seem to mind the cold! | Source

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In the light of day I realized that it was just several small birds that had made the mysterious rustling noises. I must admit I felt a little silly! The dark-eyed Juncos were very well camouflaged, especially in that low-light situation. Add to that the fact I’d never heard of them, let alone met one, and you can understand why I was a little taken aback by them.

Actually, there are 5 main dark-eyed junco subspecies:

  • 'Slate-colored' - live mostly in the eastern and northern US - all gray with white (female lighter brownish-gray)
  • 'Oregon' - widespread in the western US - black ‘hood’ and rusty back (female is lighter-colored version of the male)
  • 'Gray-headed' - southern Rockies and Great Basin - light gray underparts and head, rusty back; some with bi-colored beaks
  • 'White-winged' - found in the Black Hills of S. Dakota - commonly has 2 pronounced white wing bars per wing, and 4 white outer tail feathers on both sides of the tail
  • 'Pink-sided' - found west of the Rockies - has pale gray head, rust-colored back and pink flanks

Juncos Are Ground Foragers

I was fascinated by this sparrow-sized dark gray and white bird with black eyes and white outer tail feathers. As I watched in amazement, I saw a male junco grab onto an old dry oak leaf that was laying among thousands of others just like it on the forest floor.

It then hopped up and backward at the same time, revealing the underside of the leaf. ‘Pluck, gobble’, and the insect it had found was quickly ingested. Repeating this process over and over again, the junco continued to fill its belly.This was the first time I had witnessed that type of foraging by any bird.

Juncos are adept at flying in and out of tight spots, and easily maneuver around our woodpile looking for tasty morsels. The sudden flash of the white outer edges of their tail feathers grabs my attention; that tail is a distinctive identifying characteristic of all juncos.

Juncos use their feet  to overturn dead grass as they look for bugs and seeds.
Juncos use their feet to overturn dead grass as they look for bugs and seeds. | Source

Favorite Foods of Dark-Eyed Juncos

Foods from Foraging
Bird Feeder Foods
Caterpillars
Peanut Hearts
Spiders
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Grasshoppers
Cracked Corn
Beetles and Larvae
Bread Crumbs

'Oregon Junco' Video by John Hamil--highlights the flashing white tail feathers

Dark-Eyed ‘Slate-colored’ Juncos were an absolutely new and exciting discovery for me. I learned all I could as I observed them on the ground busily searching for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It was a non-stop sweep of the area, then quickly on to another section. These birds seemed to work in anywhere from 1 to 6 or more individuals as a foraging group.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Slate-Colored Junco looking for bugs or seeds.Male Slate-Colored Junco foraging under bird feeders.Slate-Colored Junco looking for seeds and/or bugs in the snow.
Slate-Colored Junco looking for bugs or seeds.
Slate-Colored Junco looking for bugs or seeds. | Source
Male Slate-Colored Junco foraging under bird feeders.
Male Slate-Colored Junco foraging under bird feeders. | Source
Slate-Colored Junco looking for seeds and/or bugs in the snow.
Slate-Colored Junco looking for seeds and/or bugs in the snow. | Source
Female Slate-Colored Junco foraging in the woodland underbrush.
Female Slate-Colored Junco foraging in the woodland underbrush. | Source

I also came to recognize and distinguish males from females, which were a duller brownish grey. They almost totally melted into the background under the bird feeders because of their coloring. One day in early summertime I watched a female junco that was holding a small green caterpillar in her beak. She began to bang it against a flat rock. The critter soon became mushy and softened--down the bird hatch it went!

Did You Know That

  • juncos are a type of sparrow?
  • juncos are often called snowbirds because they are easily seen against that frigid backdrop?
  • juncos are the number one feeder bird in the U.S.?
  • you can offer their preferred foods in a ground tray feeder placed near a shrub that provides an escape from predators like raccoons, dogs and cats?

Junco nest in decoration by front door.
Junco nest in decoration by front door. | Source

Juncos Nest On the Ground or Up Higher!

I was walking at the edge of my backyard one day in the spring. Near there is a transition area between my briar patch and the deer fern, and smaller young hardwood trees on the back hill. On top of the low hill is an old pine tree stump and root that was left by the bulldozer when clearing out the site for our new house. As I passed near that pine root, I startled a junco.

It surprised me to see that there was a hollowed out ’cup’ with moss and grass cradling the 3 pale green eggs inside. Another time I found a junco nest on the ground behind a bend in the eave trough section that empties into an underground drainpipe. It seems these small 6” birds are very comfortable with this type of nesting arrangement; although, for the last several years, I have also had a pair of juncos nest in a decoration that hangs on a protected outside wall near my front door.

Juvenile Slate-Colored Junco perching.  Note the streaks on the chest.  They will eventually fade.
Juvenile Slate-Colored Junco perching. Note the streaks on the chest. They will eventually fade. | Source

Young juncos are taught 'the ropes' by the parents. First days out of the nest include flying lessons, landings and takeoffs, and of course foraging. Newly-fledged offspring are easy to identify by the streaks on their chests. Both females and males will teach their young where and how to search for tasty bugs and seeds. They start with the familiar undergrowth and progress to the bird feeders.

Junco fluffed up against the cold.  Fluffing their feathers creates air pockets that help to insulate their bodies from the cold.
Junco fluffed up against the cold. Fluffing their feathers creates air pockets that help to insulate their bodies from the cold. | Source

Range of Dark-Eyed Juncos

Green indicates year round range.
Green indicates year round range. | Source

Acrobatic, energetic, vigilant and clever, these little dark gray ground-foraging birds are both insectivorous and granivorous. They are hardy year round residents here in Upstate New York, and constantly visit my bird feeders. Juncos seem to relish the black oil sunflower seeds, both on the feeders and underneath them. Other favorite foods include peanut and sunflower hearts and cracked corn. In the wintertime, they hop along the snow constantly looking for bugs or seeds, no matter the weather.

Junco foraging in the snow.  They are hardy little souls for sure!
Junco foraging in the snow. They are hardy little souls for sure! | Source

The lovely lyrical trills and contrasting sharp ‘smack, smack’ sounds of my juncos have become so familiar to me. I would truly miss their delightfully energetic presence, now that I have come to know the ‘Slate Colored’ Juncos that share their habitat with me.

Slate-Colored Junco at the bird feeder during a snowstorm.
Slate-Colored Junco at the bird feeder during a snowstorm. | Source
Grandma Pearl  a/k/a Connie Smith
Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith | Source

'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds Survive and Thrive'



Read more by visiting grandmapearl on Hubpages.

Do You Know Any Juncos?

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    • grandmapearl profile image
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      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Dear Eddy, you are such a positive force in my efforts! Thank you for sharing this on FB. Your poetry and collages are a source of beauty, comfort and fun, so I feel like I am very privileged to be included on your special Brand New Dawn FB page. What a wonderful friend you are ;) Pearl

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Another wonderful hub by my dear friend .You are so talented and I am learning so much from your hubs; I love them and keep them coming. This one voted onto my FB page A Brand New Dawn.

      Enjoy your day .

      Eddy.

    • grandmapearl profile image
      Author

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Carol, I'm always glad to see you my friend! I'm pleased you can tell that I love my birds. Hopefully you are not being deluged by rain where you are ;) Pearl

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      yes your love of birds shines through..As always interesting to read and something new to learn.

    • grandmapearl profile image
      Author

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      pstraubie, so glad to see you this beautiful Sunday! I'm pleased you enjoyed reading about my juncos. They are my little 'pals'; ever present and always busy. It is especially fun to watch the new babies learn to forage on the ground and at the feeders. They are so cute and a little wobbly, yet. But with practice they will become acrobatic aviators like their parents ;) Pearl

      I appreciated the Angels!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Thanks for the introduction to this clever little bird. What a treat bird watching offers us. I so enjoy reading about the birds you know about and willingly share with us.

      Angels are on the way to you today ps

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Thanks for the introduction to this clever little bird. What a treat bird watching offers us. I so enjoy reading about the birds you know about and willingly share with us.

      Angels are on the way to you today ps

    • grandmapearl profile image
      Author

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thanks Deb, they are some of my favorite birds because of their friendly and busy ways. They do a lot to help keep the insect population down around here; and I enjoy seeing them year round. Thanks for stopping by, my friend ;) Connie

    • grandmapearl profile image
      Author

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thanks for stopping by Joe, I know that you are working hard on your 30 hubs/30 days challenge. I'm pleased that you still find the time to visit me and my birds! Thanks for your loyal support, and I hope you spot some special birds on your walks ;) Pearl

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      A great informational piece on your junco observations. Nice work, Connie.

    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 4 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      Great job, Pearl! Now you'll have me looking closer at the birds that visit our yard or the ones that I see on my walks. Sorry my time is so short today, but I am SO busy! I appreciate you, my friend, and the very special avian niche that you excel at! Aloha!

      Joe

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

      We sure do. They're almost as big as I am. And I really hate it when they get in the house! Fortunately, it doesn't happen too often.

    • profile image

      Vickiw 4 years ago

      Bravewarrior, if you go anywhere north, I'm hoping it will be to here in BC, Canada! You know you are always welcome in this beautiful place, with lots of juncos, humming birds and other lovely northern and coastal birds to keep you happy! Hugs, Vicki

    • grandmapearl profile image
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      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      bravewarrior, I only hate spiders that come into my house! If they are outdoors, then I'm fine with them. I imagine, though, that you have some whoppers there just because of the climate!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

      Pearl, I know we'd have a blast! I wish we had Juncos in Florida. They sound like the perfect answer to caterillars and spiders (I hate spiders!).

    • grandmapearl profile image
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      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      bravewarrior, so glad you stopped by! Juncos are some of my very favorite birds. They are always around, busy and very useful to us gardeners; and they don't make a lot of noise, just pretty little songs. You'll just have to come north one of these days so you can experience some of my birds for yourself! We could have a great old time! Have a good one ;) Pearl

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

      What amazing little birds! We don't have them here, unfortunately, but they sure are cute!

    • grandmapearl profile image
      Author

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Vickiw, I'm so glad to see another junco lover! You're right, they are constantly in motion and clearly focused on the tasks at hand. I am amazed and very happy that so many survive despite their ground-nesting habits. I think the devotion of both parents to their youngsters has a great deal to do with their survival.

      I enjoyed reading your interesting and very supportive comments. Have a wonderful day ;) Pearl

    • profile image

      Vickiw 4 years ago

      I am an avid bird watcher, and love to see the little juncos too! They always look so busy and so well groomed with their dark heads and necks. This is a lovely Hub, with lots of good information, and your own photos are really great.

    • grandmapearl profile image
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      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Billy, by George, I think I've done it! I have come up with (I hope finally) the tagline that is added to the end of this article. It defines my niche, to my mind anyway. Thank you for helping me with this part of the process. You are a giving and supportive friend ;) Pearl

    • grandmapearl profile image
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      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Billy, thank you! I am still working on that tagline. It's not quite saying what I have in mind, so I have gone back to the drawing board. I've had time to tinker with it; my internet connection has been more than 'iffy' the last several days because of high winds and heavy rain.

      I tried to leave comments on your last 2 excellent hubs, but received error messages instead. I'll try again ;) Pearl

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm looking for your tagline???? Where the heck is it?

      Great opening sentence. You had me interested right off the bat with that one line. Your love of birds shines through with each sentence of this finely written article. Well done my friend.

      bill