Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In the backyard... Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eye Junco, Stub Stewart State Park, Manning, Oregon on 23 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


The Dark-eyed Junco may be found in winter in nearly every town in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, according to Project FeederWatch they are the most common bird at feeders in the Pacific Northwest, present at over 96% of feeders reporting and with an average of over 8 birds per feeder. They are one of the top 10 most numerous feeder birds throughout the United States. No wonder they are well-known colloquially as "snowbirds" throughout much of North America (though other species, too, may also be called snowbirds).

As noted, juncos are common birds at seed feeders, though they may prefer to feed on the ground under the feeders, rather than from the tube feeders themselves. A tray feeder, lower to the ground, amply supplied with black oil sunflower seeds will readily attract this small, active bird.

Yards with small, dense conifers and a variety of evergreen broadleafs, such as rhododendrons, camellias, and azaleas may prove attractive places of protective cover for juncos. Some juncos may remain for the summer and breed in yards or parks with such habitat in forested areas, though many populations migrate or move upslope to breed in damp conifer forests with brushy undergrowth. The nest is placed on or near the ground, usually concealed by a bunch of grass, ferns, or bushes.

Flocks of juncos smack and twitter as they feed and fly about on or near the ground. The breeding song is a simple bell-like trill on a single pitch of about 2-3 seconds that they start singing in March from a high perch.

The white outer tail feathers contrast with the dark gray tail as they flit about on the ground. The wings are dark gray and the belly white, but there is much variation among individuals and among populations. Populations also tend to breed together where their ranges meet. Thus, in the 1970's, five former species of juncos were lumped together by biologists into one species with many races, the Dark-eyed Junco.

The photo above shows the form known as the "Oregon" Junco. That is the most common form in the Pacific Northwest. The sides are pink, the back is brown contrasting with the dark hooded head. Males have jet black heads, females--such as the bird above--have paler gray heads (many much more pale than this bird). You can note some brown colored feathers on the back of the head and crown, another indication that this bird is a female.

Other forms sometimes reported from the Pacific Northwest include the "Slate-colored" Junco, "Pink-sided" Junco, "Gray-headed" Junco, and "White-winged" Junco. Consult a field guide for the identification of these various forms, remembering that "cross-breeds" are frequent and many individuals can be confusing.

Dark-eyed Juncos are a joy to watch because of their bold and active manner and attraction to feeders. As they are often the first birds to visit your feeder, they serve to attract the more shy birds into view.