For the Birds: Dark-Eyed Juncos - the Snowbirds

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Oregon Junco, male, singing in the rain
Photo by Elaine Chuang

By Christine Southwick

Every September song-sparrow-sized svelte birds appear in our neighborhoods. The Dark-eyed Juncos have arrived to winter-over in our milder climate. Back East they call these birds Snowbirds.

Whether darting a couple of feet, or flying into a shrub or tree, their bright-white outer-tail feathers declare their identity “I’m a junco.”.Juncos have pink bills and legs, with the males having darker heads than the females.

In Western Washington, almost all juncos are Oregon Juncos (males have black heads, females gray heads), with an occasional Slate-colored Junco in the small junco flocks. Usually solitary or in individual family groups, winter juncos form small flocks and forage in more open areas than during the rest of the year.

Oregon Junco, female
Photo by Christine Southwick
Juncos feed on the ground all year long eating seeds, insects, arthropods, and berries when available.

If your yard is mostly grass without dense shrubs and trees, you probably only have juncos in your yard from September through late March, at which time they migrate higher up, or further north into forests to breed.

In yards with native shrubs, trees and cover, juncos may stay all year long. The rapid thrill of the mate-seeking, territorial male is delightful. Females may also sing.
Oregon Junco, stripy juvenile
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. Juncos do not use nest boxes. If you find a nest in a hanging basket, it is probably a junco’s. I have had juncos nest on the ground below my shrubs, low in my evergreen clematis, and in a low hanging branch of a small pine tree.

The stripy juveniles fool me every year until I see their diagnostic white tail feathers.

Monogamous, both parents feed their young, with the male often feeding the first fledglings while the female is on the second brood. Because ground nests are so vulnerable, junco nestlings leave their nest 9-12 days after hatching, before they can fly.

Oregon Junco white outer tail feathers
Help juncos thrive by planting flowers like zinnias and coneflowers, and let them go to seed. 

Provide water and multi-stemmed shrubs, like snowberries and rhodys. It is fun to watch juncos plummet head-first from a small branch, and brake just before certain destruction.

Their ground feeding and nesting or near the ground make juncos, especially their babies, very susceptible to cat attacks. Keep your cats indoor or in a catio.


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