The Juncos I Have Come to Know
'Slate Gray' Dark-Eyed Junco
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!
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.
Favorite Foods of Dark-Eyed Juncos
Foods from Foraging
Bird Feeder Foods
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Beetles and Larvae
'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.
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?
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.
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.
Range of Dark-Eyed Juncos
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.
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.
'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds Survive and Thrive'
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