Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How to attract Dark-eyed Juncos to your backyard feeder

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.

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 in your backyard


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.

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.

Habitat: Trees and plants that attract Dark-eyed Juncos


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. Pines, sweetgums (liquidambar), and Russian olives are mentioned by many sources as attracting juncos.

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. This will attract Dark-eyed Juncos and other sparrows. In your flower garden zinias and cosmos are mentioned by some as flowers that attract juncos after they have gone to seed. Other references mention coneflowers and marigolds.

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.

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

Diet: Bird foods to attract Dark-eyed Juncos


Juncos eat over 75% seeds. They also eat beetles, moths, caterpillars and similar invertebrates, especially in summer (source). They primarily feed insects to their nestlings.

Juncos are primarily ground feeders. They hop and run on the ground, occasionally kicking over leaf litter to search for small weed seeds and invertebrates. They also glean seeds from standing plants by pulling the seed head to the ground.

Winter feeding flocks have a definite pecking order. One male will be dominant over all others. In general, males dominate females, and females dominate younger birds. (source) Males tend to winter farther north than females. More northerly breeding forms winter farther south. They leapfrog resident forms and those populations that simply move down-slope 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!

Feeders


Because juncos are primarily ground feeders they prefer platform feeders and trays close to the ground. A platform feeder with a large roof to keep out the snowy or rainy winter weather and keep seeds dry is ideal. More often than not, though, juncos will feed on the ground under the feeders where seeds have spilled out.

Dark-eyed Juncos readily come to feeders. But to encourage them to find the feeders when they first arrive in fall or winter, spread a light scattering of seeds on bare ground or cement patio. But don't put out so much so frequently that you are attracting rodents.

Juncos will also occasionally feed on suet blocks. But these need to be lower to the ground. In this case make sure it is well out in the middle of the open yard. Otherwise, cats may hide nearby and pounce from concealment.

Nesting


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, or even hanging plants on porches.

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.

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

Water: Drinking and bathing


All birds need water to drink and to bathe. However, I haven't noted juncos as frequently as some other birds at my bird baths. That may be because they spend more time on the ground and may take advantage of rain puddles and snow melt for those purposes. I've learned that they also drink dew off plants!

Rather than the typical bird bath, juncos may prefer something lower to the ground. Try placing shallow clay saucers on the ground filled with water. These are the saucers you place under clay pots to keep water from running out of your potted plants.

Because Dark-eyed Juncos move only to the edge of frozen ground in winter, they may benefit from heated bird baths. If you don't have that available make sure you refill your birdbath with warm water every morning during freezing weather. Warm water should stay liquid for a couple of hours to provide all the birds with needed hydration.

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!

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