The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is a species of the Junco family, a group of small- to medium-sized American sparrows and one of the most common birds in North America. These cute little birds have a rounded head, a pointy and short pinkish bill and a rather long tail relative to their size.
There is a rather wide variation of geographic location among the dozen or so subspecies within their family, but generally speaking there are two main Juncos: the “Oregon” which is found out West, and the Slate (or Dark-eyed) as highlighted here. The Eastern Junco that resides here has a velvety, smoky-gray coat with a soft white underbelly and white outer tail feathers.
They are commonly known as the “snowbird,” due to the fact that when most people first see them it signals the beginning of winter and colder months ahead. It’s also often said that people only see Juncos when it snows and that they bring snowy winter weather with them as they migrate south. In Western North Carolina you may see one of these Juncos over the summer months if you live in higher elevations, but come late fall their numbers rapidly increase everywhere in our region as they make their way out of their predominant nesting grounds in Canada, the Rocky Mountain region and upper Appalachia.
In their breeding grounds, they can be found in dense, green, coniferous forests including pine, spruce and fir, but as they migrate to their more temperate winter grounds in the US mainland, they flourish in open woodlands, parks and backyards. Classified as a ground-feeding bird, the Dark-eyed Junco can be seen hopping (versus walking) around one’s yard, scavenging for seeds of weeds and grasses and, if lucky, the occasional winter berry. At a feeder, they will happily make a treat of fallen seed from bird feeders above and especially enjoy white millet, sunflower seed, peanuts and even Nyjer seed, among others. In the summer months, their diet is richer in protein and consists of insects such as caterpillars, beetles, wasps and flies although their overall diet is largely seed year-round.
Like most songbirds, the Dark-eyed Junco’s nesting season begins in early April and extends through the end of summer. They build their nests low to the ground and burrow them in tangled tree roots or other organic cavities often near the edge of openings in heavily wooded areas.
These small birds can pack quite the punch when it comes to their song, with the louder variation of their sharp and even trill of a dozen or two notes carrying several hundred feet or more. Their voice trill is close to that of a Pine Warbler or Chipping Sparrow and can vary from darker, dry notes to more light and whimsical tinkling sounds. Their call is a high and short chip note heard in rapid succession and they will play with the tempo to encourage or discourage desired behaviors from other Juncos and prey.
So as the fall season comes to an end here in WNC and we enter winter, be on the lookout and listen for the arrival of these dainty little birds in your backyard and at your feeder. Offer some seed for Juncos this winter and they will pay you back in endless joy!
Casey First is owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, located at 946 Merrimon Avenue, Suite 120, in Asheville. Monthly bird events are free and open to the public, with no registration required. To learn more, visit NorthAsheville.wbu.com. Stephanie Sipp is a professional nature illustrator and educator who creates joyful images of animals, birds, flowers and places which are celebrated by followers both regionally and online.