Species of the Month: Dark-eyed Junco

• Species: Dark-eyed junco.

• Scientific name: Junco hyemalis.

• Nicknames: Snowbird.

• Claim to fame: The junco was known to nature watchers in the Ozarks and elsewhere long before singer Anne Murray vaulted the small bird into national prominence with her 1970 hit, “Snowbird.” 

It earned the name “snowbird” because, in this region, it was most commonly seen in winter. It earned a reputation as a harbinger of seasonal change: It appeared when cold weather arrived in winter and vanished when temperatures began to warm up in spring.

• Species status: The bird is common throughout its range, although some studies show dark-eyed junco numbers could be experiencing a slight decline due to habitat changes in its nesting range.

• First discovered: The first scientific description of the dark-eyed junco was written by the famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

• Family matters: Dark-eyed juncos belong to the bird family Fringillidae; a collection of species which includes grosbeaks, finches, sparrows and buntings. Birding experts have identified several sub-species of the dark-eyed junco. 

The largest of these sub-species, and the one found in this area, is the slate-colored junco.

• Length: 5 to 7 inches.

• Diet: Seeds and insects comprise the bulk of a junco’s diet. 

• Weight: 18 to 30 grams.

• Distinguishing characteristics: Slate-colored juncos are uniformly colored with a dark gray to brown back, hood and sides. Juncos travel in flocks. 

These flocks can be enjoyable to watch around feeders because of the way they flit and hop back and forth. These highly active routines may appear to be playful antics, but they’re believed to be social hierarchy actions by which males are asserting dominance over females and adults are showing younger birds “who’s the boss.”

Sometimes two dominant birds will face each other, extend their necks and repeatedly raise and lower their bills as if in a dance, but these actions rarely end in a fight.

• Life span: Information unavailable, but two to five years is probably a good estimate.

• Habitat: Juncos breed and nest in coniferous and mixed forests. In winter, they can be found in a variety of habitats, including fields, suburbs, gardens and fence rows. 

In winter, they are commonly found around feeders (they primarily feed on the ground, but will come to platform feeders, too).

• Life cycle: Courtship, breeding and nesting occurs in Canada and Alaska. Juncos build nests which are basically open cups made of rootlets, dried leaves, moss, bark strips and other plant materials.

Nests are usually built in a shallow depression with some type of overhanging protection. The female lays 3-5 eggs, which range in color from white to pale bluish-white. Occasionally, eggs will have reddish-brown markings.

Incubation of the eggs is 12-13 days. Young chicks are fed only insects which are partly regurgitated. Chicks will leave the nest in 9-13 days after hatching. Juncos usually arrive in this area in October or early November and stay until early spring to mid-spring.

(source: MDC)

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