Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How to attract Dark-eyed Juncos to your backyard

When I was a child, before I began watching birds, my mother set up bird feeders in winter. One of the birds at those feeders was the Dark-eyed Junco. Actually, they were called Oregon Juncos at the time, but most people called them "snow birds," as they arrived in winter. They ate birdseed scattered on our patio.

Juncos are active tiny sparrows, with twittering calls. They are often one of the first birds to find your new feeder. In this article I will discuss more about them and how to make your backyard and feeders more attractive to Dark-eyed Juncos.

This page will serve as an overview to attracting Dark-eyed Juncos. I will also create additional supplemental pages leading to more in-depth articles on foods that juncos love, exactly where they can be found, I'll discuss more about their nesting habits, and a page telling how to identify juncos.

We'll discuss how you can attract Dark-eyed Juncos to your backyard and to your bird feeder by the following means: 
  • Plant trees and shrubs that juncos can use for food and shelter 
  • Provide foods that juncos love 
  • Select bird feeders specifically for juncos
  • Can you get juncos nest in your backyard?
  • Bring a water feature into your backyard landscaping 

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco on a tree branch
Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Overview: Dark-eyed Juncos


Dark-eyed Juncos breed across Canada and in the mountains of the western United States. In winter they move into the lowlands and south across much of the United States. They are found in coniferous forests and mixed woods. They tend to like shrubby areas without much ground cover. Thus, they are attracted to backyard lawn edges with big dense shrubs to hide in. And, they are easily attracted to backyard bird feeders.

Identification


Juncos vary widely in plumage across the North American continent. Many forms once considered separate species are now considered to be just variations of one species--Dark-eyed Junco. More changes to what is considered a species and what is not are likely in the future. Some forms are all slate-gray. Some have wing bars. Some are gray with reddish backs. Some have black heads and brown backs with pink sides. All are identified by their round bodies, big heads, small conical pink beak, pink legs, and flashing white outer tail feathers on a blackish tail.

On their breeding grounds juncos sing a long slightly musical trill, on one pitch. These trilled songs last about 3 seconds. Otherwise they give calls that are rather soft ticks, smacks and twitters.

Dark-eyed Juncos are usually found in small active flocks. Several different forms may occur in the same wintering flock in the West. They also will flock with other sparrows on occasion. They hop on the open ground and roadsides, scratching and feeding, and fly in and out of nearby cover at any threat, real or imagined. As they hop and fly they may flash their white outer tail feathers nervously, fanning their tails briefly to expose those contrasting feathers.

Please visit my in-depth article: What do Dark-eyed Juncos look like?

Range and habitat


The junco's native habitat is conifer and mixed forests. They are especially abundant a couple of years after a fire or clear cut, when low brushy plants regrow. They are less common, but still present, in more mature forests, again, especially in openings. They need low dense bushes for nesting. They may even place their nests in grass at the base of a bush.

It is in winter that juncos migrate south or move out of the mountains and forests. At this time of year they are found in a wider variety of habitats. They can be found in some more open areas, such as harvested fields, lake shores, road ditches. They also move into residential backyards and parks, especially if there are larger dense bushes and adjacent lawn.

If you wish to attract juncos you should plant low bushy conifers and thick evergreen hedges. If you are looking to landscape your yard with larger trees these can attract juncos, as well.

If you have a vegetable garden, you might leave it go to seed and not clean it up in the autumn, if you are able.

Likewise, juncos will shuffle around in the leaf litter under low shrubs. Blackberry thickets and similar berries will attract them. You should visit a nursery in your area to see what thick hedge-type and evergreen shrubs do well in your area. If they are large enough, such shrubs may start attracting juncos in your first winter.

Please visit my in-depth article: Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live?

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the ground
Dark-eyed (Gray-headed) Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Diet


Juncos eat a very high percentage of small seeds in their diet, mostly weed seeds.

In summer Dark-eyed Juncos eat more insect and invertebrate foods. They still eat a lot of seeds, though.

Winter feeding flocks are active and birds constantly smack and twitter. They feed along road edges and other edges between grassy and brushy areas. They are very common in residential areas in winter.

At your backyard birdfeeder Dark-eyed Juncos may prefer the smaller millet seeds over whole sunflower seeds. They also eat hulled sunflower seeds and cracked corn. And, guess what? While researching this I found that there is such a thing as hulled millet! This should greatly reduce the mess of inedible husks under your feeder!

Juncos are happy just feeding on the ground. Thus, they may clean up seeds spilled by other birds from the feeder above. They will also eat from low platform feeders set on the ground, a tree stump, or fence post. The lower, the better.

Dark-eyed Juncos don't seem to visit bird baths as much as some other backyard birds. They still do need a source of fresh water, though. They prefer to drink and bathe from puddles on the ground.

In winter all birds need a source of drinking water. Since juncos migrate to the edge of the snowline water may often be frozen. Thus it is good to provide liquid water for them on those freezing days.

A shallow saucer of water placed on the ground may be more attractive to juncos than a tall bird bath or fountain.

Please visit my more in-depth article: What do Dark-eyed Juncos like to eat?

Nesting and reproduction


If you happen to live within the breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos they may nest in or near your yard in dense shrubs within forested areas. The usually nest on the ground. They build a cup-like nest of grass and plants material. This they hide under a shrub or thick grass at the base of a tree or rock. (source) They may also nest in potted plants.

Males deliver their ringing trill from a high perch to defend their nesting territory. Thus, if you see and hear this you'll know there are juncos nesting somewhere nearby. Otherwise, juncos tend to disappear from their wintering grounds by April.

Dark-eyed Juncos generally raise 2 clutches during the breeding season. Juncos do not reuse their nests. So when they are done nesting remove the old nest. Then they may build another at the same location. The juveniles are streaked and look like sparrows, but have the tell-tale tail--the white outer tail feathers!

Though usually not nesting in lowland towns, I have found Dark-eyed Juncos nesting in corporate business parks with large evergreen shrubs in Portland, Oregon. They also nest in parks and cemeteries all the way south to San Diego. In each of these cases there are extensive grass lawns, mature tall trees, and thick tall hedges.

Please visit my more in-depth article: Where do Dark-eyed Juncos like to nest?

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the ground
Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Conclusion

Dark-eyed Juncos may often be the most numerous bird at your feeder in winter. You may enjoy hours of entertainment watching the social hierarchy of the flock work itself out. You may also note subtle plumage differences between darker males and browner females and paler yearlings. In the West you will no doubt notice plumage differences between several populations.

Juncos readily visit feeders and backyards in winter, so they are a common backyard bird throughout much of the United States. You shouldn't have any trouble coaxing them to your feeders. But they can be attracted by using platform feeders at low heights, or even scattering birdseed right on the ground.

While they will eat black oil sunflower seeds from hopper feeders, they may not come as readily to tube feeders. They are more enthusiastic about millet as seed.

And try placing a clay saucer on the ground to provide needed water--especially during prolonged freezing weather.

Do these things and you're sure to have Dark-eyed Juncos forming the core of your winter birdfeeder flock!

Fun facts about Dark-eyed Juncos


In 1973 scientists determined that several different-looking juncos were actually just color variations of one species. Thus they "lumped" several former species into just one: Dark-eyed Junco. The following color variations of Dark-eyed Juncos that were once considered separate species are the Oregon Juncos, Slate-colored Juncos, Guadalupe Juncos, White-winged Juncos, and Gray-headed Juncos.

The scientific name of Dark-eyed Junco is Junco hyemalis. It is uncertain exactly what the word junco refers to. Juncus is Latin for bulrush or reed. Juncos are related to the reed bunting. So that may be it. The word hyemalis refers to winter.

Snowbird is the colloquial term many use for Dark-eyed Juncos, especially the Slate-colored form. In many parts of the United States juncos arrive in winter from more northern climes. The name snowbird has also been given to people (especially retired people in recreational vehicles) who migrate to warm southern areas in winter.

Most juncos only live 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years, but some live over 10 years.

The nest is made of fibrous plant material usually built on the ground. I have seen them at the base of trees and hidden by overhanging grasses and ferns.

The white outer tail feathers are flashed aggressively when feeding as a display against other birds.

Responds readily to "pishing," the squeaking and lip smacking noise some bird watchers use to attract many birds.

Male Dark-eyed Juncos don't migrate as far south in winter as do the females. The males then return in spring more quickly to set up their breeding territories, arriving before the females.

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