Dear Gardening Friends,
As we are nestling in and readying ourselves for yet another snowstorm I am writing to you about the winsome Dark-eyed Junco that has become increasingly more prevalent in our winter garden. Dark-eyed Juncos are commonly referred to in the East as “snowbirds,’ not only because they arrive to their winter feeding grounds oftentimes at the first snow fall, but because of their distinctive coloring—gray skies above (top feathers) and snow below (breast and belly feathers). In a typical winter we see singular juncos at the Nyjer feeders and on the ground below, at the most, two to four. During this snowiest of winters, we have a larger than usual mixed-flock of small seed-eating songbirds, with many more juncos feeding alongside the finches, sparrows, nuthatches, and chickadees. Quite timorous of people and sudden noise, they dart in and out of the dense shrubbery surrounding our little garden, and seem to find the greatest security in the low-lying branches of the ‘Blue Prince’ holly bushes.
The former common name of the Dark-eyed Junco that populates the East was Slate-colored Junco, which is an apt description of the rich, dark grey-colored hoods and dorsal feathers of the male. The female’s feathers are a lighter grey. I have read that the majority of juncos that winter in our region are male, but I wonder if that is still true today, with the ever-increasing popularity of backyard bird feeding. We typically have equal numbers of males and females at our feeders.
Dark-eyed Juncos are members of the Emberizidae, a large family of passerines that share the characteristic of distinctive conically shaped bills evolved for seed eating. Family Emberizidae includes North American species of sparrows, buntings, and towhees and the group is often referred to as “LBJS” – Little Brown Jobs. The Dark-eyed Juncos bill is an easily recognized light pink.
Kingdom: Animalia (Animal)
Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrates)
Class: Aves (Birds)
Order: Passeriformes (Perching birds)
Family: Emberizidae (Seed-eating birds with conical bill)
Species: J. hyemalis
The range of the Snowbird is one of the most widespread of songbirds in North America and they can be found throughout the United States and Canada. Juncos at their northern range (the boreal forests of Canada and coniferous forests of the northern US) migrate further south, arriving in their winter feeding grounds between mid-September and November; leaving to breed by the end of April. In cold years, juncos may stay in their winter range to breed and a number of populations are permanent residents.
Juncos found throughout the US were formerly classified as different species of juncos because in various geographic regions they had quite different coloration. Their common names reflected these differences—the Gray-headed Junco of the Rocky Mountains, the black-headed and pink-sided Oregon Junco of the far western states, the White-winged Junco of the Black Hills, and the Slated-colored Junco of the East. Ornithologists discovered that where their populations overlap all birds with dark irises interbreed, which in biological terms means they are the same species. Despite the dramatic differences in their plumage, all share a similar song and diet. The juncos principle song is a dulcet trilling that lasts for several seconds and their diet consists of seeds, insects, grains, and berries. To hear a sample of the Snowbird’s melodious song: Junco typical voice.