Although we don’t get much snow in eastern North Carolina, it doesn’t stop diminutive Dark-eyed Juncos, commonly referred to as “Snowbirds,” from wintering with us. One might say, their presence is the first sign that winter has arrived in the south. They are the sparrow size birds, dark gray with white bellies and white outer tail feathers that flash in flight and who have stout, pale pinkish bills that suddenly appear at our feeding stations at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC and in our back yards at home. Another theory for their “Snowbird” nickname is their coloring, which has been described as “leaden skies above and snow below.” They have also been observed burrowing through snow in search of covered over seeds. So the name “Snowbirds” is understandable, but why they are called Juncos, no one can figure out! The word Junco is derived from juncus, which is Latin for the “rush” plant, an emergent reed found in wetlands, but Juncos are not found in that habitat. The coloration of the Junco does vary throughout the country, but no matter the brown in California or black, two-tones in Alaska, they all fashion a white belly, and females tend to be lighter shades of whatever color, gray or slate in our case, than the males. Except for a few groups of permanents in our Appalachian Mountains during the warmer months, Juncos are found in the forests and mountains of Canada, but before the uber cold hits, they flood the lower continent of North America to wait out the harsh weather and frigid temperatures. Even though they head south to avoid the cold, they still bulk up for winter by growing 30% more feathering by weight in the winter than in the summer. Females migrate south before the males do and fly at very low altitudes at night making them susceptible to a number of obstacles, such as towers, along the way. Although official bird counters record the Junco population as multi-millions (3 to 4) in North America (second only to the American Robin), they come in numbers of 10 to 30 to each feeding territory and a dominance hierarchy or strict pecking order is immediately set up. Each little Junco knows its place in the power structure of the flock, however, some bold youngster males may challenge the status of adult males with aggressive displays of lunges and tail flicking. Some males choose to stay farther north during the winter to avoid competition and gain that advantage of arriving first for breeding season after return migration. One study showed that in Michigan only 20% of the Juncos observed were female, but in Alabama, 80% were female. They are the most common bird found near feeders in all of North America every winter and tend to return to the same area each year. Chances are we have many of the same birds at our feeder this winter that we had in previous years. Feeding stations do attract them, but you won’t see Juncos perched at a feeder for they are birds of the ground, spending over 65% of their time foraging the spillage. So, with Juncos present, nothing goes to waste. They dine on a variety of seeds to include sunflower, niger thistle, cracked corn, millet, suet (peanut butter seems to be their favorite!), weed greens such as chickweed, ragweed, crab grass, timothy hay and occasionally fruit. One quarter of their diet is made up of insects, which offer the protein they need. Juncos, as well as other sparrows, engage in a foraging method called “riding.” That’s when they land on a weed’s or grass stem’s seed cluster and bear their weight to “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it. They may have learned that behavior by watching the surfers in our area! Visiting Juncos will usually stay within a 10 acre area as they winter. At night they will roost in evergreens, tall grasses or brush piles and frequent that location repeatedly, sharing their space with others from their flock, but it has been observed that no matter the chill, they don’t huddle together as other birds do. Their song is a trill similar to the chipping sparrow, but the Junco throws in some tick sounds and high pitched, bell-like tinkling chirps, making their voice more musical some say. For those who study bird language, Juncos are purported to be excellent subjects. When our little winter guests return to their breeding areas up north, they will nest in hidden bowls or depressions in the ground or in low hanging branches or shrubs. The small nests are cup-shaped and made of grass, twigs, bark, other plant materials and hair. The female Junco lays 3 to 5 blotchy eggs in a variety of ground color shades such as brown, gray or muted purple. Mom, solely, will incubate the eggs and that period usually lasts a day or two less than two weeks. Dad is delivering food to Mom and eventually the little ones. Strongly territorial, the male Junco also helps his mate defend against nest predators such as chipmunks and deer mice. Both parents feed the young and attend to nest-keeping which includes removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs. Usually the Juncos diet is three parts seed to one part insects, but during the nesting period, the parents increase their intake of insects 50-60% to maintain the stamina it takes to raise and protect their youngins. The fledglings will leave the nest in 9-12 days. The highest longevities recorded for Juncos range between 7 and 11 years, which is impressive for any bird, but to get there they must remain alert, fast, injury free and nutritionally sound! John James Audubon wrote in 1831 that “there is not an individual in the union who does not know the little Snowbird.” We are enjoying our wee Snowbirds! Are you enjoying yours?
Stay Warm Everybody! (And please bring your pets inside.) We’re experiencing some really frigid temps all across the country!
Author of “Save Them All“