A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Dark-eyed Junco — It’s a sure sign of cold weather when this snowbird arrives

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about small songbirds most often seen around bird feeders in rural and suburban areas of Kentucky during the late fall and winter.

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is the very definition of the term “snowbird,” living most of the year at high elevations in northern latitudes, then heading south as cold weather sets in and the snow begin to fly.

This common sparrow-sized bird has distinctive plumage. Males tend to be darker than females, with a dark gray to black head, dark eyes, a gray neck and breast, and white belly. Females may have a hint of brown on their backs and wings.

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) lives most of the year at high elevations in northern latitudes, then heads south as cold weather sets in (Photo courtesy of Audubon Society)

Their finch-like bill is a pale pink (both sexes).

About five inches long, head to tail, the Dark-eyed Junco has a wingspan of about seven inches and weighs in at about one ounce.

There are several subspecies, and at least one cross, so coloration varies widely across the country. East of the Great Plains, juncos are all gray and white, but in the Western U.S., they come in various color patterns, some with light gray heads, reddish to brown on their backs and sides, white wing bars, and light-colored eyes.

Until the 1980s, five of the subspecies were considered separate species.

Range and Distribution

The Dark-eyed Junco is a common and widespread across Kentucky, overwintering here, but is gone back northward by mid-March.

According to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., the subspecies Junco hyemalis carolinensis, which breeds through the Appalachian Mountains, as far south as northern Georgia, was first found nesting near the summit of Black Mountain in Harlan County in 1947, at an elevation of about 3,600 feet.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a member of family Passerellidae, the American sparrows, which includes finches, towhees, several genera of sparrows, the lark bunting, and bush tanager.

Its breeding range extends from central Alaska, across all provinces of Canada, to the Maritimes (Newfoundland), wintering as far south as Florida, west to Texas, northern Mexico and Baja California.

In the Lower 48 states, the Dark-eyed Junco is present year-round in the higher elevations of the Appalachians from Maine to northern Georgia, parts of the northernmost Great Lakes states, and the Mountain West.

In winter, the Dark-eyed Junco feeds on the seeds of weeds and grasses, and berries. (Photo by Christopher L. Wood)

Birds that nest farther north migrate the earliest, reaching their wintering grounds by mid-September. Males tend to winter slightly farther north than females.

Habitat

In winter they frequent semi-open lands, including woodland edges, thickets, brushy fencerows, suburban backyards and parks near urban areas.

Food Habits

They prefer to feed on the ground, so they are often beneath hanging bird feeders, to take advantage of seed that falls to the grass below. They will also eat from platforms and trays, placed low to the ground.

Their diet consists of seeds and insects, depending on the time of year.

In summer, on their breeding grounds, about half of what they eat is “bugs,” including caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, and occasionally spiders.

In winter, they feed heavily on the seeds of weeds and grasses and berries.

Feed them mixed bird seed, which includes the smaller millet and milo seeds.

Reproduction and Nesting

In the western U.S. states some Dark-eyed Junco have light gray heads, and reddish to brown on their backs and sides. (Photo provided)

The male sings from a high perch to defend his nesting territory.

In courtship, the pair may hop about on ground with wings drooped and with tail spread widely, while the male sings softly.

The nest site is usually on the ground, well hidden under overhanging grass, logs, rocks, or exposed roots, or in shallow holes in dirt banks, sometimes in low shrubs.

The female builds the nest, an open cup of grass, weeds, and leaves, lined with fine grass and sometimes with hair or feathers.

She lays three to five eggs, whitish to bluish white, or pale gray, with markings of brown and gray.

Incubation by the female lasts about 11 to 13 days. Both parents feed the nestlings, and they leave the nest nine to 13 days after hatching. Usually, one to two broods are produced per year.

Feed songbirds in your yard during the cold months of the year and the Dark-eyed Junco will show up. Look for its distinctive “snowy” white belly, the color of winter.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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