“Harbinger of winter” is a term that has a more somber feel to it than its warm-weather counterpart – “harbinger of spring.”

However, one marker of seasonal change – the arrival of dark-eyed juncos – is a well-known sign post of winter that makes everyone smile.Dark-eyed junco February, 2001

Whether you’re an avid birder or someone who only notices nature on a casual basis, it’s hard not to break into a grin when you see a group of these small slate-colored birds flit, dart, and dance about your yard in winter.

Known as “snowbirds” because they appear here in Missouri and over much of the U.S. in winter, they were popular winter visitors long before singer Anne Murray vaulted the bird into national prominence with her 1970 hit “Snowbird.”

Dark-eyed juncos usually arrive in Missouri sometimes in November and stay until early or mid-spring. If not for their antics, it’d be relatively easy for the casual nature observer to overlook them. Their usual color pattern is dark to medium dark gray on the back, head and sides which is contrasted with a white belly and a few white outer tail feathers.

There are several sub-species of the dark-eyed junco that appear across the U.S. The bulk of the bird’s courtship, breeding, nesting and brood-rearing activities occur in Canada and Alaska, although it should be noted some juncos are year-round residents of some mountainous areas of the U.S.

Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most common birds found in North America. Biologists estimate their population to be approximately 630 million. In summer, they breed and nest in coniferous and mixed forests.

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