Our Little Winter Bird

text & photos : Norma A. Hubbard  (February 2019)

When I lived in the city, I took little notice of the birds. Not that I didn’t see the birds, I was aware that there were sparrows, the odd Blue Jay, and who doesn’t notice bright red Cardinals; however, I didn’t keep track of when they came and went. Now I mark the seasons by the birds and one bird that tells me winter is on its way is the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis). Many birders refer to this little bird as the real “snowbird”.

Dark-eyed Juncos arrive in our area in the fall as the cooler weather sets in and usually most are gone by spring. These dark grey birds are part of the sparrow family. Juncos are easy to identify against the white of snow and by the flash of their white tail feathers when they fly. Both sexes have white feathers underneath. The males tend to have darker grey feathers than the females, plus females may have a bit of brown mixed with the grey. There is no difference in size between the male and female. Both sexes are 14-16cm (5.5-6.3 in) in length with wingspans of 18–25 cm (7.1–9.8 in). I don’t know if any of you have ever held a bird, but like all birds they weigh next to nothing at 18–30 g (0.6–1.1 oz). I am always amazed how such tiny creatures can survive our winters. Incredibly, the oldest Dark-eyed Junco on record was 11 years, 4 months old, which is old for a tiny wild bird.

My juncos arrive slowly, a few birds during late September or early October, then as the colder weather sets in their numbers increase. I know winter is on the way when the juncos arrive, but I also know that by late March or early April, spring is approaching when I notice they have left. They mostly forage on the ground, scratching for seeds and bugs. I usually see them eating on the ground, seldom at the feeders, however this also due to the bossy Blue Jays who tend to take over the feeders.

Juncos mostly eat seeds, and as with many birds, they add insects to their diet during breeding season. When I clean up my gardens in the fall, I always leave some plants with seeds for the birds.

Juncos prefer to live in coniferous forests among pines, firs, and spruce, but they will inhabit other areas as needed during migration. Juncos are excellent flyers, and when on the ground, they tend to hop, not walk. In general, juncos are solitary birds for most of the year. However, as with many birds during cold weather, juncos live in large flocks and there is a ‘pecking order’ within the flock. These flocks often regroup each winter in the same area. They will also mix with other birds during winter, but come summer male juncos will fiercely defend a territory.

Female juncos build the nests on or near ground level, often selecting a natural depression; they seldom build in trees, and perhaps this is why they tend not to reuse nests. While males don’t build the nests, they will court females by dropping pieces of nest materials, like moss and grass, in front of the females. They also show off their feathers by fanning or flicking their wings and tail feathers. Females seem to be impressed by males that have more white in their tail feathers. The incubation period is just under two weeks and baby birds are out of the nest within 13 days after hatching. Juncos will lay eggs up to three times a season with 3 to 6 eggs per brood. Sadly, we do not get to see these baby birds as juncos are gone by spring.

Dark-eyed Juncos are listed as ‘least concern’ with steady populations. In fact, according to Cornell University, they are among the more abundant of forest birds in North America. Juncos will leave soon as they migrate to other areas, so enjoy these little winter birds while they flock to our area during the cold winter months … and know when they are gone, so will winter!

Source : https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/lifehistory