As the weather cools and winter begins to approach, Dark-eyed Juncos are starting to show up at feeders. We often see these charming birds year-round in Muskoka, but for folks to the south, they are a harbinger of winter.
In fact, juncos are so closely tied to winter that in many areas they’re often called snowbirds: the arrival of the juncos presages the arrival of snow, although often by several months.
It’s also been suggested that their colouring might have something to do with the name, with a dark grey upper and a white belly that is reminiscent of dark, wintry skies over a snow-covered field.
In summertime, juncos are found right across the country. They breed well up into the boreal forest, and are seen from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, and right up to the top of the tree line in the arctic. This is when we are least likely to see juncos in Muskoka – for the most part, we are to the south of their preferred breeding territory, although they have been spotted here.
In winter, most juncos migrate southward. This is when they show up in Muskoka, and as far south as Northern Mexico.
Juncos are primarily ground feeders, hopping around, and picking up seeds. Their two-footed hop makes them look almost joyful, and watching juncos feed is a great way to boost even the most winter-damaged spirits.
They will come to bird feeders, but it’s usually in search of the spillage from messier birds. They will spend their time happily cleaning up the ground or snow beneath the feeder.
They will also eat from a feeder if it’s an open, tray type, particularly if it’s mounted low to the ground. In a snowy area like ours, it’s best to install a feeder with some kind of roofed covering so the junco’s food doesn’t get completely buried every time it snows.
To attract Dark-eyed Juncos to your yard, fill the feeders with a mix of seed types, including millet, shelled sunflower seeds, and cracked corn. You can also attract them by planting a range of seed-bearing grasses, and leaving them standing through the winter – juncos and other birds will very happily eat the seeds from the grasses.
They like to have a bit of cover available – some shrubs or low coniferous trees are ideal. They’ll also take advantage of brush piles, as long as there are small openings where they can enter. These are particularly useful places to ride out a wintry storm or to seek shelter on a cold night.
Not surprisingly, juncos were a popular favourite a few years ago when Canadian Geographic held a contest to name an official Canadian bird. The judges eventually selected the Gray Jay, but fans of the junco offered some superb arguments in support of their bird. As one writer noted, they’re known for showing up at American feeding stations in winter and then heading north once the weather gets too warm; they defend their territory if they need to but are happy to share a feeder with other species; and in mating, the male approaches the female and bows to her politely.
So keep your feeders full and your eyes open this fall and winter, and enjoy the sight of this most Canadian of birds.
Photo by Ken Gibson