For the Birds: Dark-eyed Juncos

Monday, March 21, 2011

Male Oregon Junco. Photo by Christine Southwick.
By Christine Southwick

Did you ever startle a bird as you’re walking along a tree-lined path, and all you saw was a flash of white as it flew away? Or maybe you just heard a chipping sound in the woods, and couldn’t find it? Stand still, and look for movement and flashes of white down near the ground.

That flashing white of its outer tail feathers tells you that it was a junco. Its pink bill is also a diagnostic clue.

Here in Western Washington, we have Oregon Juncos with an occasional Slate-colored Junco in the winter flock. These are both sub-species of Dark-eyed Juncos, a type of sparrow.

Dark-eyed Juncos are often called “Snowbirds” because so many spend their winters throughout the US, and move further north or to higher elevations to breed.

Slate-backed Junco.  Photo by Christine Southwick
Some yards in our area, usually near healthy greenbelts, may have juncos year round. But are these the same birds? Like robins and flickers, many Juncos you see may be migrating birds that have learned that your yard is a good resting and re-fueling stop.

Some yards with sufficient food sources, and plenty of evergreen trees, may even have resident juncos. My yard has two color-banded males that have been breeding here every year, and may even be resident. My previous yard only had juncos from October thru March.

Juncos feed on the ground eating seeds all year long, and insects, arthropods, and berries when available. In the winter, they form small flocks and often forage in more open areas than during the rest of the year. 

Family portrait l-r female, male,  juvenile. 5th year that male orange over orange has raised young in this yard.  Photo by Christine Southwick.

The female builds her nest for 3-5 eggs, on the ground, hidden under grass, behind a log, rock or tree root. Both parents feed their young, and they often raise a second brood here.

Because juncos are ground feeders and nesters, cats are a great danger to juncos, and should be shoo’d away.

If you want juncos in your yard, plant flowers like zinnias and cosmos and let them go to seed. Provide water and shrubs, and evergreen trees for shade. Juncos like escape routes using multi –stemmed shrubs. Besides, it’s fun to watch them plummet from a small branch, and brake with their wings just before certain destruction.

In August, don’t deadhead your flowers. Leave the seed for the juncos and other birds, and you may have your own Snowbirds with their flashing white bellies and startling white outer tail feathers.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Unknown March 21, 2011 at 4:54 PM  

They seem to like the seeds from my lavender also. I now make sure to leave some on the plants. They've nested somewhere as last year the babies were hiding in my weeds while they learned to fly. (That's my new excuse for not weeding.)

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