It’s a crisp, bright winter morning. Snow sparkles on the spruce boughs, and my footsteps leave a deep trail to the feeders. The hoppers and trays are filled with seed, awaiting the local finches, doves, chickadees and cardinals.
But the early birds are already here. Seven little sparrows hop along the ground, their dark heads and backs prominent against the snow. These Dark-eyed Juncos are welcome winter visitors.
While most of our winter birds are year-round residents, the juncos migrate to us from northern Canada to spend winter in our southern Ontario neighborhood. As they seem to arrive and leave with the snow, they truly live up to their nickname, Snowbirds. Their name may also reflect their appearance—dark on top like snow clouds, white underneath like snow.
You have likely seen these energetic little songbirds, as they are very common. Estimated at 630 million, they are one of the most abundant species in North America. These medium-sized sparrows have stout pink bills, distinct white bellies, and white outer tail feathers. Fluffed up to stay warm, they appear quite plump. They also have 30% more feathers, by weight, in winter than during the summer.
Dark-eyed Juncos vary in color from region to region. The birds on the eastern half of the continent are Slate-colored Juncos. The Oregon Juncos (dark hood, light brown back and sides) live throughout much of the western half. There are also other smaller populations of White-winged, Gray-headed, Pink-sided, and Red-backed Dark-eyed Juncos.
Many populations that nest in the western mountain ranges migrate to lower elevations in winter. Sixty-five percent of juncos, like the ones in our backyard, nest in the northern boreal forest and migrate to southern Canada and the USA.
Juncos are primarily seed-eaters, especially enjoying weeds and grasses. They have an entertaining style of foraging, called “riding.” The junco lands on top of a tall grass stem, and, as the stem bends under its weight, the bird rides it to the ground to better access the seeds. During nesting season, juncos also hunt for insects, such as ants, moths, butterflies, and beetles to enhance their diet and provide for their hatchlings.
In winter, when insects are scarce, juncos will forage for seeds up to six hours a day. These busy ground feeders scratch and peck through leaf litter and burrow through snow to find a meal. We often have a flock of six to ten juncos in our backyard. With several feeders available, there is only the occasional squabble and competitive flurry of wings. They are also content sharing space with our House Sparrows, goldfinches and Mourning Doves.
Juncos often return to the same wintering site each year, and I’m hopeful to see these same lively visitors next winter.