Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What do Dark-eyed Juncos look like?

Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are one of the most common birds at winter bird feeders in the United States. They may visit your backyard feeders. If they do, you will enjoy them more if you are able to identify them.

These small sparrows nest in openings in conifer and mixed forests in northern and mountainous areas of North America. In winter they migrate southward, being found nearly throughout the lower 48 states of the US.

This page is a supplement to the overview page on attracting Dark-eyed Juncos. The overview leads to other in-depth articles on food and diet, range and habitat, and nesting. This page discusses identification.

There is a wide variety of plumage variations across the range of Dark-eyed Juncos. So, what exactly do Dark-eyed Juncos look like? How do you tell them apart from other similar species? This article discusses size, shape, plumage coloration, voice, and flight style.

Photo of Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco on stump
Dark-eyed Junco
Phot by Greg Gillson

Junco identification, in general


Juncos are small little sparrows. They have a pudgy body, rather large head, small conical bill, and a fairly long tail with a straight end.

Juncos are frequently seen in the forest understory. They may perch regularly on the lowest branches of tall conifers within the forest. They also perch in understory and edge plants and bushes.

They seem to constantly make little twittering calls and trills.

They feed on the ground, hopping on bare spots searching for seeds. They often feed nervously, quickly flitting to nearby cover at any sign of danger or aggression from other juncos. But they quickly return to feeding on the open edges again.

All juncos share a tiny conical pink bill. But their tell-tale mark is the dark tail with white outer tail feathers that they spread and flash nervously and continuously.

There are 5 species of juncos in the world, from Panama to the Arctic. Within these are many additional sub-forms that vary widely in their plumage coloration. The Yellow-eyed Junco and the Dark-eyed Junco are the two species in the United States.

Juncos are part of the New World Sparrows. They have names such as sparrows, buntings, towhees, and juncos. But the names sparrows and buntings are also used for Old World birds that are not as closely related, but often look similar--seed eating birds with conical bills that are often colored in grays and browns, and frequently have unique head patterns.

Dark-eyed Junco Identification


Dark-eyed Juncos range from 5 to 6.5 inches in length, from tip of the bill to end of the tail. They have a wingspan of about 7-9 inches. Their weight averages about 19 grams.

Plumage


The plumage of Dark-eyed Juncos is highly variable. At one time they were considered to be composed of at least 5 different species. But they were combined ("lumped") in 1973 into one species, the Dark-eyed Junco. Wherever in their range that the different-looking forms come together they interbreed freely. Thus, it is not always possible to put an individual bird into one of the previously-named species or subspecies.

For convenience, I am dividing these juncos into 3 groups based broadly on how their plumage looks. Within these three groups I'll describe some of the additional variations.

Slate-colored Junco group


Photo of Slate-colored Junco on ground with fall leaves
Slate-colored Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson
Slate-colored Junco (J. h. hyemalis and J. h. carolinensis)

This is a widespread northern and eastern form (breeding in Alaska and across Canada). It is common in winter in the Eastern and Central United Stated. Males of the Slate-colored Juncos are solid dark slate gray throughout with a white belly. The small bill is pink or whitish. The tail is blackish to dark gray with white outer tail feathers.

Females of the Slate-colored Juncos are a bit paler and brownish-gray, especially browner on the crown and back.

White-winged Junco (J. h. aikeni)

White-winged Juncos nest in the Black Hills of South Dakota and nearby and winter south to New Mexico. They are a bit bigger than other subspecies. Males are pale gray throughout with white belly and two thin wing bars. They have more white outer tail feathers than other groups.

Cassiar Junco (J. h. cistmontanus)

This form breeding in northern Alberta may be an intergrade between the Slate-colored Junco and the Oregon Junco. It is as the Slate-colored Junco in plumage coloration with one exception. The hood is slightly darker than the back but there is a noticeable line of demarcation between the two. This is true for both males and paler and browner females.

Oregon Junco group


Photo of singing Oregon Junco on branch in forest
Oregon Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson
Oregon Junco (J. h. oreganus and 6 other subspecies)

There are several forms of Oregon Junco in the West, differing slightly in hue of back and sides. Males have jet black hoods that sharply contrast with a brown back. The small conical bill is pink. Wings are dark gray-brown. The tail is dark gray with white outer tail feathers. The belly is white. The sides are pinkish-cinnamon.

Females are similar, but the hood is pale gray. The brown of the back mixes with the gray hood up the back of the head.

Pink-sided Junco (J. h. mearnsi)

This form nests in the northern Rockies. The male Pink-sided Junco has a pale gray hood and brown back, looking very similar to females of other forms of Oregon Juncos. However, the lores (feathers between the bill and eyes) are black. The pink sides are so extensive that they may meet on the upper belly. Females are very similar to females of other forms, with a bit more pink on the sides.

Gray-headed Junco group


Photo of Gray-headed Junco feeding in lawn
Gray-headed Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson
Gray-headed Junco (J. h. caniceps)

Gray-headed Juncos nest in the southern Rockies near the Grand Canyon. Adults are pale gray throughout, paling slightly and gradually to the white belly. The back is rufous-brown. The lores (feathers between bill and eyes) are black. The bill is entirely pale. Males and females are similar.

Red-backed Junco (J. h. dorsalis)

Red-backed Juncos are residents in the mountains of southern Arizona and New Mexico. Adults are similar to each other and similar to Gray-headed Juncos. The main difference is that the Red-backed Junco has a dark upper mandible and pale below. The throat is also paler.

Flight style


I've never seen Dark-eyed Juncos fly very far during the day. When they do fly they seem to flap rapidly with occasional close winged glides ("flap-bound" flight style) and pump/spread their tails showing off the white outer tail feathers. Flight is often twisty or jerky.

When feeding, they are nervous and flit about, twisting and flying short distances. Even if they don't fly they twitch their wings and flash their white tail feathers continuously.

When flushed they tend to fly upward. They land in the top of a short bush or bramble, or up to about 15 feet into bare tree branches.

There doesn't seem to be any information on night-time migratory flight style, but I imagine it is probably more steady and direct, without the tail flashing. But that's just my guess. They apparently migrate at rather low altitudes, because they are killed when they collide with buildings and wires at night more often than many other nocturnal migrant species.

This video has Dark-eyed Juncos singing in comparison with Chipping Sparrow and Orange-crowned Warbler (see section on Voice, below):


Voice


What do Dark-eyed Juncos sound like? Well, they have many soft twittering notes that many people call a bell-like tinkling. They also have a long slightly musical trill on one pitch.

Calls include mostly soft short single "tik" or "spit" or similar notes, sometimes given in threes ("ti-ti-ti"). These calls are given continuously in social winter flocks. Paired birds in spring and summer also keep in constant communication.

Songs of Dark-eyed Juncos are usually a simple trill on one pitch. There is some variation so that some trills are more musical than others. Trills last about 3 seconds, sometimes with final single notes. Songs are more musical than Chipping Sparrows which have a dry trill of 4 seconds or so, but similar. Songs of Orange-crowned Warblers are also similar, but the musical trill of the warbler definitely slows and drops in pitch at the end. I find it is possible to be confused about which one of these birds is singing at a distance, especially in early spring when you haven't heard them sing since the previous summer.

Bird watchers make spishing noises to attract the attention of these birds. Dark-eyed Juncos respond quickly to this noise by flying up into low tree branches above the intruder with harder "tik" calls, raised crown feathers, and full attention on the human interloper.

Similar species


Other junco species


Yellow-eyed Junco 




In the United States there is only one other junco species--Yellow-eyed Junco. The Yellow-eyed Junco is most similar to the Red-backed Junco. Both are very pale gray with rufous backs and bicolored bills--dark above and pale below. Yellow-eyed Juncos have obvious yellow eyes and the rufous of the back extends onto the wing coverts.

There are a couple more junco species in Mexico and south to Panama. These tend to appear similar to the Pink-sided Junco pattern, with paler gray heads.

Other similar species


Vesper Sparrow


Juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos remain in a streaky brown sparrow-like plumage for 2-3 months after leaving the nest. Inexperienced bird watchers may mistake them for Vesper Sparrows. Both have white outer tail feathers. Juncos are birds of conifer forests; Vesper Sparrows are birds of open short grasslands or sage deserts.

Black-chinned Sparrow


Photo of Black-chinned Sparrow in tree branches
Black-chinned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Black-chinned Sparrows are superficially very similar to juncos. They are small sparrows. They are medium gray on the head and body. They have brown and black streaked back and wings. They have a pink bill. All juncos have white bellies; Black-chinned Sparrows have all-gray bellies.

Black-chinned Sparrows breed in chaparral areas of the Southwest and winter into Mexico.

Spotted Towhee and Eastern Towhee


Photo of Spotted Towhee in pine tree
Spotted Towhee
Photo by Greg Gillson
Black hood, reddish sides, white belly. The Spotted Towhee, even the Eastern Towhee, may superficially resemble the Oregon Junco. Juncos are small sparrows, towhees are very large sparrows. Spotted Towhees have white spots on the wing coverts and big white tail corners. The towhees have obvious red eyes. Towhees do not occur in flocks as do the juncos.

Black Phoebe


Photo of Black Phoebe perched on metal fence post
Black Phoebe
Photo by Greg Gillson
The larger Black Phoebe is blackish-gray throughout with white belly. Phoebes sit upright in the open, usually low to the ground in a bush or on a fence line. From there they fly out to catch flying insects. They do not occur in flocks. They have a flat wide black bill. They bob their tail up and down.


Return to the Overview Page on Dark-eyed Juncos

Sunday, February 23, 2020

What kind of bird feeder should I buy? Easy feeder setup

Buying and setting up your first bird feeder should be easy!


In this article I'm going to tell you what to buy and how to set up a simple and easy first bird feeding station.

When you look online for what bird feeders and foods to buy, it is "best bird feeder this," and "choosing the right bird food that." It can be overwhelmingly confusing!

I've written other articles on choosing the best bird foods and bird feeders. This isn't one of them.

This article is for those of you who may be suffering from choice overload and haven't set up a bird feeder yet because there are too many choices and you can't decide which is best.

I'm not going to show you all the options and discuss the pros and cons and make you decide. I'm going to decide for you what kind of bird feeder you should buy! I'm setting up your first backyard bird feeding kit for you. Oh, okay, I may give you an option here and there, but not too many.

"Hey, Greg, set up a bird feeding station for me!" Okay, here is what you get.

Hang bird feeders on shepherd's hook

Photo of bird feeders on shepherd's hook on snowy day in front of homes
Bird feeders on shepherd's hook.
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
I want to set up a bird feeding station for you with about 4 different types of bird feeders. For this I am choosing two dual shepherd's hooks. They need to be sturdy and all one solid piece (not hollow) so they don't break or bend easily.

I couldn't find any on Amazon for you to buy and have delivered. You need to drive to Home Depot and get this one yourself. Sorry. Everyone has a Home Depot nearby, don't they? (Actually, they do deliver, but cost is about $55 to do so.)

Vigoro 84-inch traditional double offset shepherd's hook.  Model #844645VG (check on Home Depot website). Price was under $18 each on 2/23/2020. Buy two of these.

Vigoro 84-inch double offset shepherd's hook
(potted plants not included)
Photo stolen from Home Depot product description
The 84 inch pole height includes about 10 inches pushed into the ground. So they are about 6 feet tall. The bird feeders hang down a couple of feet. So the bottom of the bird feeders might be 3-5 feet above ground. We don't want to make it easy for raccoons to get to them, or cats to get to the feeding birds. Higher is better; this is a good height.

Shepherd's hooks can be placed out in the yard wherever you have lawn or soil. They can be moved around and last for years. They are quite strong. However, in a strong windstorm you might want to take the feeders down so the pole does not bend.

Buy a tube feeder and black oil sunflower seeds


Most backyard birds love sunflower seeds. And black oil sunflowers are the most nutritious. These are easier for birds to crack open than the striped sunflower seeds.

[You may enjoy my article on what kind of bird seeds birds prefer.]

You will want to keep jays from grabbing a gullet-full of sunflower seeds and flying off to bury them for later. So you will want to place sunflower seeds in tube feeders. Tube feeders are especially attractive to the colorful tree-feeding finches. Birds attracted to tube feeders include House Finch, Purple Finch, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, Evening Grosbeak, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch.

This Droll Yankees Classic tube feeder is 16 inches tall and has 6 feeding ports. It holds up to 1 pound of sunflower seeds. There are larger sizes. But I don't think larger is better. And I don't think it is bad for feeders to run out of seed during the day. Let birds come in the morning. First come, first served. They can go out in the neighborhood and find plenty of wild foods later in the day. [Price was under $30 on 2/23/2020.]




Now you need to fill the feeder. Black oil sunflower seed is a bit expensive. So buy in bulk to save money. Try to watch for lower price sales of about $1 per pound. Remember, that cheaper bird seed will likely have more chaff (twigs, dirt). This upsets some people. But you are not buying food for human consumption. You need to regularly clean your feeders of this material or any wet or moldy seed.

This Wagner's 25 pound bag of black oil sunflower seed was a good price when I checked. [Just under $25 on 2/23/2020.]




Okay, we've come to the first optional decision. Do you have tree squirrels in your neighborhood? Do you have lots of jays, starlings, grackles, or blackbirds? Would you rather not feed these larger animals that seem to vacuum down your expensive bird seed?

You can buy a tube feeder with a cage around it that keeps out squirrels and larger birds. Not all of them, mind you, but many. This does not keep out smaller chipmunks, cowbirds, and house sparrows, for instance.

The Audubon Squirrel-proof caged tube bird feeder holds 1.25 pounds of seed. I believe that "squirrel-proof" is open to interpretation. But it will slow them down. This feeder blocks out some squirrels and larger birds, while still letting in the smaller birds. If this sounds good, buy this instead of the Droll Yankee tube feeder above. [Under $40 on 2/23/2020.]




Buy a hopper feeder for mixed seeds


Hopper feeders can offer a variety of food sizes, from small seeds to peanut kernels. Hopper feeders have a small shelf around them where birds can sit and eat. This allows ground-feeding birds, such as sparrows and doves to eat more easily than tube feeders. Backyard birds that like hopper feeders include House Sparrow, Mourning Dove, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow. All the birds that eat from tube feeders will also eat from a hopper feeder.

The hopper feeder really is a generic bird feeder.

This Woodlink Going Green Medium is about the right size with a base about 9x10 inches. It has a screen floor to allow bird seed to dry quickly after getting wet. Most of the seed stays up in the hopper and dry until dispensed. It can hold over 3 pounds of seed, and weighs 4 pounds empty. So this is best hung from the lower hook on the shepherd's hook. [Just over $40 on 2/23/2020.]




Next you need some mixed seed for this hopper feeder. The Wagner's Songbird Supreme mixed seed blend is ideal. It doesn't have any cheap filler seeds that many birds don't eat! It contains 50% sunflower seeds. It has most bird's favorite foods. I couldn't find it in a larger bags, though, just 8 pounds. [Just over $12 on 2/23/2020.]




Option! You can save a bit by buying in bulk the Wagner's Greatest Variety seed in a 16 pound bag. This seed is 40% sunflower seeds. It does have a low volume of some filler seed (milo, cracked corn), but also additional nuts and seeds. Perhaps a wider variety of birds will eat this. Try it and see! [Just over $18 on 2/23/2020.]




You should definitely buy a hummingbird feeder next


Hang up hummingbird feeders in March in most of the United States. But if you live along the Pacific coast or southwest, you may have hummingbirds all year.

I prefer a smaller hummingbird feeder that lasts only 3 days. Then I take it down and clean it. Keeping hummingbird feeders clean is so important.

[Read more on why I like smaller hummingbird feeders and how to attract more hummingbirds with them.]

Here is the hummingbird feeder I recommend.

The More Birds Ruby hummingbird feeder is 10 ounces and has 5 feeding ports. There are other sizes on the Amazon page. [Less than $10 on 2/23/2020.]




Make your own hummingbird nectar! 4 parts water to 1 part table sugar. Stir 1 cup of sugar into 4 cups of warm water in a saucepan. Save extra nectar in a water bottle or other container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. No food coloring. It is not necessary to boil the water; warm tap water is sufficient to dissolve sugar completely.

[Read my article on making your own hummingbird nectar.]

Get a suet feeder for winter

A herd of Bushtits on a suet feeder.
Photo by Greg Gillson
A suet feeder provides fat to keep birds warm in winter. Many insect eaters will visit your backyard feeders for suet. Birds attracted to suet feeders include woodpeckers, wrens, warblers, Bushtits, nuthatches, chickadees, and others.

Suet can melt or go rancid in summer, so suet is primarily a winter food.

I like the design of this Erytlly suet cage. It's dimensions are 5.1x5.5x2 inches. [Less than $8 on 2/23/2020.]

Woodpeckers, with their strong feet, cling to the side or bottom of the cage. Small birds don't have trouble, either. But the undesirable starlings and blackbirds, with their weaker feet, have to stand on top of the feeder. I've used a longer chain to hang the feeder. When undesirable heavy birds land on the feeder it spins around and they fall off.




I don't have any preference for suet. So how about St. Albans Bay Suet Plus? It is a 4-pack with 4 different mixtures. It measures 4x4x1 inches, so fits in the suet feeder above. [Less than $15 on 2/23/2020.]




Have you tried a thistle feeder?


The final kind of bird feeder you should buy is a thistle feeder. The simplest is called a thistle sock. It is a simple mesh bag that holds seeds of the niger plant, trademarked as Nyjer. Niger seed, also called thistle (it is not a thistle), attracts goldfinches and siskins, and less so House Finches.

[My related articles: What is a thistle sock/thistle feeder?]

C&S Nyjer socks come in a 3-pack (seeds not included). Each bag holds about 8 ounces. Bags eventually get holes or snags. If caught in the rain too often the seed can go bad. [Less than $8 on 2/23/2020.]

I suggest placing a large bowl under the sock when you refill. The seeds are very small and thin and easily spill out. And it is kind of expensive. So catching and saving any spilled seed is a good idea.




You need to buy some Niger seed to fill your thistle socks. Lyric Nyjer had a good price on a 10 pound when I checked. [About $20 on 2/23/2020.]

Niger seed doesn't have a long shelf life. It will not last from one season to the next. If birds stop coming it might be time to buy fresher seed. Don't buy too much at a time.




Buy a bird bath to complete your bird feeding station


Birds need water to drink and to bathe. All birds. That means that any kind of local bird might show up in your bird bath. How fun!

Bird baths quickly show wear and get soiled with algae or mildew. So I suggest starting with a rather inexpensive bird bath and cleaning regularly. "Pretty" bird baths will soon not be looking so good.

This Pure Garden Antique bird bath is made of plastic resin. It is more sturdy than some. To keep it level and stable weight it down with sand or small gravel. [Just over $30 on 2/23/2020.]




You, know, I built a homemade bird bath with a clay plant saucer stacked on a few pavers. It is inexpensive and low to the ground, which the birds like.

[See my related article: How high off the ground should a bird bath be?]

When you go to Home Depot to pick up the shepherd's hook, you might pick up these saucers, as well. These are what you are looking for on the Home Depot website.

Putting your backyard bird feeding kit together


Here's how I would set up the bird feeders.

Shepherd's hook feeder #1
Tube feeder
Hummingbird feeder (summer) or suet feeder (winter)

Shepherd's hook feeder #2
Hopper feeder
Thistle feeder

Bird bath

What is the cost of this bird feeder setup?


Shepherd's hook 1  $18
Tube feeder  $30
Sunflower seed  $25
Hummingbird feeder  $10
C&H Sugar (10 pound bag)  $6 (Walmart)
Suet feeder  $8
Suet  $8

Cost of first bird feeding station: About $105

Shepherd's hook 2  $18
Hopper feeder  $40
Songbird Supreme mixed seed  $12
Thistle sock  $8
Niger seed  $20

Cost of second bird feeding station: About $98

Bird bath  $35

The approximate cost of setting up the whole bird feeding kit above is about $238. Of course, you don't have to buy every bird feeder and the foods all at one time. Start small and add gradually, if you want. And the birds don't mind if you buy a less expensive feeder, or build it yourself.

[I notice some huge price increases at the end of May 2020. I hope prices drop back down soon!]

But this setup will bring the largest variety of birds to your backyard.



Do you have more questions about setting up a bird feeder? They are answered in my article on setting up a bird feeding station in 6 steps

Find out more about the 7 different kinds of bird feeders and the birds they attract



Saturday, February 22, 2020

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos like to nest?

Dark-eyed Juncos summer in forest openings in northern parts of North America and in forested mountains in the West. Up to 66% of all Dark-eyed Juncos nest in the boreal forests. In winter they move south and are found in most of the United States. They are a common feeder bird in winter.

If you have Dark-eyed Juncos in your area year round can you entice them to nest in your backyard?

Dark-eyed Juncos build an open cup nest on the ground, often in tall grass against or under a root ball or tree trunk. The nest is often hidden by overhanging vegetation such as ferns or other dense plants. They do not use nest boxes. They may, however, nest in undisturbed potted plants on the ground or even hanging pots!

This article is a supplement to my overview page on Dark-eyed Juncos. The overview page leads to other articles on Dark-eyed Juncos, including where they live, what they look like, and what they eat. This page discusses courtship, nesting and reproduction.

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco nest. Cup nest with 4 white eggs spotted with brown and hidden among grass
Dark-eyed Junco nest and eggs
Image by karchicken from Pixabay

Nesting habits and reproduction of Dark-eyed Juncos


Male juncos arrive on territory before the females. Males start singing in March and April. Males sing from a high, conspicuous perch. The males chase off other males invading their territory.

Males court the female. Then the female chooses the nest site and she builds the nest, usually concealed on the ground.

After the female lays the egg, she incubates the eggs until they hatch. Both parents feed the nestlings and continue to do so for a couple of weeks after the young leave the nest.

Juncos are monogamous during the nesting season, but may choose new mates each year. Actually, these birds are "socially monogamous." The pair stays with their one mate raise the young together. However, both birds may frequently copulate with juncos in adjoining territories.

Females that lose their mate through death quickly mate with a neighboring male who may have their own nest and young to care for. These "single moms" take care of raising their own young by themselves.

Dark-eyed Juncos usually breed for the first time when one year old. They usually produce two broods per year, sometimes three. Nest predation is very high. Eggs and young are preyed upon by rodents in the forest.

Courtship and mating


Male juncos arrive on the breeding grounds well before the females. They begin singing from tall exposed perches. They defend their territories vigorously against other male juncos. Territories may be 2-3 acres in size.

The song is a simple musical trill on one pitch.

Dark-eyed Junco pairs are formed in April. Courting males fan their wings and tails and hop up and down. They pick up moss or nesting material to present to the female. Males chirp and sing their trilled songs as they court the female.

Males of the mated pair stay quite close to the females at all times except if chasing away other male juncos from the territory.

Here is a video showing habitat and singing of a male Dark-eyed Junco on territory. (I hear lots of different birds besides the junco singing, though.)


Nest building


The female Dark-eyed Junco does most of the nest building herself. The male may help by bringing nest materials for her to add. The birds may take up to 9 days to complete the nest.

Nests are usually placed on the ground. Nests are well hidden under roots or against tree trunks. They may be covered by bushes or tufts of grass (see photo at top of page). They often have some kind of overhanging shelter over the nest.

Nests are cup-shaped and made of grasses and plant fibers. Nest material may include twigs, moss, and bark strips. The inside of the nest is lined with grass and mammal hair.

I have found conflicting information on whether juncos reuse their nests. It appears that even with successive broods in the same year, Dark-eyed Juncos usually build new nests each time. This makes sense, as a nest, especially on the ground, is likely to be infested with mites and lice and other insects after raising 3-6 nestlings. Nevertheless, juncos do, sometimes, reuse their nest.

Nest boxes


Dark-eyed Juncos will not use nest boxes. However, they may nest in large flower pots with bushy flowers or plants, including rarely hanging flower pots.

A first nesting of a junco in a nest box in Washington Sate in 2016 earned an article in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology (pdf abstract). That's how rare it is for this species (or most related New World sparrows) to nest in a box.

While juncos won't use nest boxes, you may still attract Dark-eyed Juncos to nest in your backyard. The key is allowing a bit of unkempt or natural yard.

Plant several dense spruce trees with branches near the ground. Keep the area around the trees unmanicured so that tall grass grows up. This may work to entice juncos to nest. Other dense bushes with leaves to the ground along a wooden fence may also work. Even a dense flower garden may provide nesting grounds (see video below).

Obviously, ground nesting birds need protection from cats and other predators. So if you suspect nesting in your backyard, please don't look for the nest. If you look for the nest, you will trample a path up to the nest that predators may follow. You may also step on the hidden nest yourself.

Eggs


Dark-eyed Juncos lay eggs as early as March. But since they may nest up to 3 times a season, they may have eggs in the nest as late as August. They lay from 3-6 eggs, frequently 4-5. Early clutches are more likely to have more eggs, later clutches fewer.

In Oregon, nests with eggs or young were found from April 25th to early August. Lowland nesting was earlier than in the mountains (Birds of Oregon: a general reference).

In the mountains of San Diego County, Dark eyed Juncos were noted building nests as early as April 18 and feeding young as early as May 13. However, right along the coast in San Diego, birds build nests as early as February and fledge their last set of chicks in August and September (San Diego County Bird Atlas).

Eggs have a white or gray base color, often with a bluish or greenish hue. They are lightly speckled with brown, mostly on the larger end of the egg. Eggs are about 0.8 inches long.

Females alone incubate the eggs. Eggs are incubated 11-13 days before they hatch.

Here is a video of a junco nest with very young nestlings. How many babies (chicks) do you count?The mother junco has lost her tail. Toward the end of the video the father junco comes in to feed the young. He has a blacker head... and a full tail!


Young--nestlings and fledglings


Young hatch naked and helpless (altricial). The nestlings remain in the nest for 10-13 days.

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young are fed mostly insects.

Young birds leave the nest in juvenile plumage. They appear as small brown sparrows with brown streaks on the breast. The flashing white tail feathers and twittering calls quickly give away their identity. Parents accompany and feed the fledglings for about 3 weeks before they are on their own.

The juvenile plumage lasts 2 to 3 months before they molt into an adult-like plumage. Newer bird watchers aren't fooled very long by the sparrow-like plumage of juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos. They behave as adult juncos, with perhaps even more flashing of their white outer tail feathers.

Here is a video of a juvenile Dark-eyed Junco taking a bath and drying off. The pink bill and white outer tail feathers give away the identification immediately.




Back to the Overview page for Dark-eyed Junco.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Tips for your first bird walk

One way to jumpstart your knowledge of birds, bird watching, and bird identification is to join a more experienced bird watcher. Perhaps you have learned about bird watching from a family member or teacher and they have become your birding mentor. How wonderful!

Another way many people start their birding hobby is by joining a group on a local bird walk. Have you thought about doing so?

Photo of bird watchers looking at birds
Bird watchers on a bird walk
Image by benmenting from Pixabay

What is a bird walk?


A bird walk is generally a free birding tour for beginners. An experienced local birder leads a limited number of participants on a walk of a local birding hotspot. The volunteer leader points out birds, explains identification, and helps others to learn about the birds.

Guided bird walks tend to be leisurely and last a half-day or less.

Some bird walks are repeated and held weekly or monthly at the same location. Other bird walks take the group to a different location each time.

Many beginning bird watchers enjoy the social aspect of learning to watch birds in a group. Others appreciate the teaching skill or personality of an individual trip leader. Thus, many participants keep coming back for additional bird walks.

Guided birding tours usually differ from bird walks in that they are more focused and charge a fee. They may search more specifically for rare birds. In many cases, the leader(s) and participants of guided tours do not live near the tour destination. Some guided tours last several days with lodging, meals, and transportation provided. Birding tours usually watch birds dawn to dusk, sometimes with optional owl searches after dark. These are frequently attended by more experienced birders searching for a specific bird or list of birds at an exotic location.

How do you find local bird walks?


Audubon Societies, nature centers, bird clubs, conservation organizations, city and county parks, refuges, bird stores, bird festivals, bird watching classes. All these groups and programs offer free bird walks either regularly or from time-to-time.

In my area there is a free monthly bird walk at the San Dieguito Lagoon, sponsored by the San Dieguito River Park.

There are 3 Audubon Societies near me: Buena Vista Audubon Society, Palomar Audubon Society, and San Diego Audubon Society. They advertise both fee and free field trips open to the public. There are usually free bird walks once every month.

Can you attend even if you are not an Audubon member? The San Diego Audubon Society advertises its bird walks as being for "newer birders, visiting birders, and anyone else who is interested."

I Googled "bird walk San Diego" and found these additional free bird walks near me:
  • The San Diego Botanical Garden has a free monthly bird walk.
  • There's even a San Diego Beginning Birders Meet-up group! I notice they are meeting for a bird walk at a local lake in 3 weeks.
  • The Nature Collective ( a conservation organization) has a monthly wildlife walk.
  • The Mission Trails Visitor Center has monthly bird walks.
I hope this give you some ideas of where you might find out about bird walks in your area.

Reminder: Always follow the directions for sign up. Most bird walks are limited in number. Don't show up without notice. And if you have to cancel let the leader know as far in advance as possible. There may be others on a waiting list that can take your spot.

Also, pay attention to where you will meet and the exact time. Arrive promptly or ahead of time. Will all your time be spent at the meeting location? Or will you carpool and caravan from there to one or more other locations?

What equipment do you bring on a bird walk?


For its bird walks, the San Diego Audubon Society says to bring "binoculars, scopes, water, sunscreen, hat, and enthusiasm."

This is good advice.

Binoculars are probably the most important tool you can bring bird watching. It is possible that the leader will have access to a couple of spare binoculars to loan to you. But this is not usually the case.

For bird walks binoculars are probably best at 7 or 8 power magnification. Some birders use 10-power. These 10x binoculars are a bit harder for beginners to use. The 7x and 8x usually have a wider field of view. This makes it easier to locate a bird right away when looking through them.

The leader, and perhaps some of the participants, may have a spotting scope. This is a telescope of 20-60x magnification. The leader will share the spotting scope for more distant birds that are sitting in one place. Scopes are especially good for birds out on the water. Most bird watchers are more than willing to share their spotting scope with others. They can show you how to focus.

The trip description should let you know what else to bring.

Just in case, always bring parking money, a water bottle, sunscreen, and perhaps a snack.

What do you wear on a bird walk?


Wear clothes appropriate for the weather. Most bird walks start a bit later than dawn, but still can be cool. Two hours later it can be quite warm, however. A light jacket that can be removed and carried is often a good idea.

A wide-brimmed hat to protect from the sun is good.

Hiking shoes or boots are appropriate. Expect a muddy trail or rough rocks. Most bird walks are designed for a group on level ground with easy hiking, but that's not always the case.

Camouflage? No. But dull earth tones of black, brown, green or blue are good for bird watching. Birds have full color vision. So avoid bright colored clothing and jackets.

Speaking of jackets, make sure your rain coat or other clothes don't make loud rustling noises or squeaks as you walk. See the subheading below on being quiet.

Photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet on lichen-covered twig
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Photo by Greg Gillson

Best practices to enjoy your first bird walk


In general, bird walks are rather informal affairs. You can expect that there will be people there of several interest levels, including non-birding spouses or children. You can make it easier for the trip leader by following directions (because there are always some people who aren't going to follow the directions). Go with the flow and have fun!

Here are some tips to help you enjoy your birding trip.

Adjusting your binoculars


Customize your binoculars for you. Binoculars are adjustable for the distance between your eyes, how deep set your eyes are in their sockets, whether you wear eyeglasses, and any differences in focal length between each eye.

Adjust the width of the barrels to see a single view. Adjust the eyecups in if you wear eyeglasses, out if you don't for the most comfortable view without any black crescents. Adjust the diopter setting so that each eye sees an equally in-focus image.

If you don't know how to do this, ask other birders on your bird walk to show you how. Once these adjustments are made the binoculars usually stay set.

Spotting birds in your binoculars


Newer birders sometimes have a bit of trouble spotting birds through their binoculars. With a bit of practice, though, you'll soon lift your binoculars and have the bird centered in view immediately.

Aim your body at the bird with your head straight. Keep looking at the bird with your eyes as you bring your binoculars up to your face, Don't look at the binoculars as you bring them to your eyes. Practice this on a leaf or other stationary object.

Share the scope!


If you are borrowing a view through someone else's spotting scope, step back after you have gotten a good view. Allow someone who hasn't seen it yet to view it before the bird flies away. If the bird is still there after everyone has gotten a look, ask to view it again, if you wish.

Watch those legs! When looking through the scope try not to move the scope or bump the tripod legs. Even a small bump will move the image off the bird. Look through the scope without touching it, if possible. When the bird is visible you may lightly roll the focus knob to adjust it for your eyes. If you grab the scope first you will move it off the bird. Then you and the next person in line may miss seeing the bird while the scope owner readjusts it and gets it realigned.

Watch those legs (part 2)! And watch out for the tripod legs when the scope is being carried. You don't want to get hit in the head or trip over the extended legs! Give the person carrying the scope plenty of room.

Be quiet!


People are extraordinarily loud, and seemingly totally unaware of it. Birds and other animals can be frightened by many noises we take for granted. Noises made by a whole herd of bird watchers will alarm birds more than a single bird watcher alone. So try to be as quiet as you can.

Be present in the bird walk. If you talk about the bird in front of you, that's appropriate. But don't talk about the birds you saw on some trip last summer. Don't talk about your latest visit to the dentist. There is always someone on the bird walk who talks the entire time... about everything except what they are seeing. Please don't let that someone be you!

On the other hand, do ask questions! Ask bird-related questions of the trip leader.

Walk softly, don't scrape gravel.

If your bird walk involves any driving and birding, stop talking when you stop the car. Don't slam the car door. Birds may be calling and singing as soon as you get out of the vehicle. Be ready to watch birds immediately!

If you are coughing or sneezing, move to the back of the group where you may be less likely to scare the bird away.

No pointing!


Pointing at a bird is a sure way to make it fly away! Try to describe a bird's location to others without pointing.

Even raising your binoculars or camera to your face may frighten a nearby bird. Instead, carry your camera up to your cheek bones as you approach a stationary bird. Then just swivel it up to your eyes.

Don't move ahead of the trip leader


Let the leader determine the pace of the group. Don't push ahead hoping to be the first to spot a new species for the day.

Likewise, don't dally behind. The trip leader may hold up the group waiting for you to catch up to show you a bird. If you wish to hang back to photograph birds or flowers, or perhaps do some nature sketching, let the leader know. They can go on without you; you'll catch up.



I hope these tips help you plan for and enjoy your first bird walk!

Related: You may enjoy this article: How to start bird watching.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live?

Dark-eyed Juncos are common winter birds throughout the United States. Perhaps you've wondered: Where else do they live? Where do they go in summer? And, can you attract them to your yard by planting any trees or bushes?

This page is a supplement to my Overview page of the Dark-eyed Junco. The overview page leads to other more in-depth articles on identification, nesting and reproduction, foods and diet, and back to this page on range and habitat.

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

Range and seasonal movements


There are many subspecies or populations of Dark-eyed Juncos that are strongly different in coloration. In general, Eastern populations are all slate-gray above with white belly and white outer tail feathers. Western birds have black (male) or paler gray (female) heads, brown backs, pink sides and white belly and outer tail feathers. See my article on identification linked from the Overview page.

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live in summer?


Dark-eyed Juncos breed and nest throughout many areas of North America. They can be grouped into the following forms, each with a similar unique coloration and breeding areas.

Slate-colored Junco
This dark slate-gray form with white belly nests from Alaska and across Canada south to northern British Columbia and from there eastward and south to Minnesota, to Massachusetts. It breeds south in the Appalachians to Georgia. Also includes Cassiar Junco that may be a stable hybrid form between Slate-colored and Oregon Junco.

Oregon Junco
This form with black head and brown back nests from SE Alaska to Saskatchewan, then south through California to northern Baja, also to Idaho, northwestern Wyoming and western Nevada. Also includes the gray-headed Pink-sided Junco form.

White-winged Junco
This is the form living in the Black hills of South Dakota and Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska. It is dark slate-gray throughout with two white wing bars.

Gray-headed Junco
This form is pale gray throughout head, breast, sides with rusty-red back. The belly and outer tail feathers are white. It has dark eyes. They breed from the White Mountains of northeastern California, southern Idaho, south to Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. Also includes the Red-backed Junco.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in Southeast United States


eBird records for June shows that Dark-eyed Juncos breed barely into northern Georgia and northern South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, western Virginia, western and southern West Virginia, and extreme northwestern Maryland.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in Northeast United States


Dark-eyed Juncos breed through the central part of Pennsylvania and across the northern parts, much of inland New York, northern Connecticut, western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Midwest United States


In the Midwest, Dark-eyed Juncos breed around Cleveland, Ohio, northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, and southwest South Dakota.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Southwest United States


Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the mountains in extreme western Texas, central and northwestern New Mexico, southwestern, central, and northcentral Arizona.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Rocky Mountain States


Dark-eyed Juncos breed widely in the mountains of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.


Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Pacific States


Dark-eyed Juncos breed widely throughout forested and mountain regions of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Junco in Alaska


Dark-eyed Juncos breed across most of Alaska north to the edge of the tundra.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Junco in Canada


Dark-eyed Juncos breed across most of Canada wherever there are trees. They are pretty much absent from Nunavut and northern Quebec and northern Labrador.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Junco in Mexico


Dark-eyed Juncos breed in northern Baja California in the mountains of Sierra de San Pedro Martir.

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live in winter?


Dark-eyed Juncos winter from extreme southern Canada south through all of the United States except rarely in Florida, southern Louisiana, or coastal southern Texas.

In the West, Dark-eyed Juncos winter from Alaska south to northernmost Mexico.

Fall migrant timing


Some populations are resident, perhaps only moving downslope in winter, if that. Other populations of juncos are highly migratory. The Slate-colored form migrates southward from late September to early December.

The ecology of Dark-eyed Juncos

Juncos are found nesting in habitats consisting of openings and edges of conifer and mixed forests. They are found from sea level to 18,000 feet elevation. They breed north to the edge of the tundra. They breed in higher pine forests above the deserts of Arizona and Texas.

Up to 60% of the total population of Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the boreal forest (source). Wherever they are found, summer or winter, they need bare ground to forage for food. They do like plenty of ground cover such as ferns and small bushes under the trees or at the edge of a clearing.

Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the first species to move into clear cuts after forest harvest. They remain very common for 20 years and become a bit less so as the forest closes in. They are rarer in deep, close-canopied forests with bare floors.

Backyard trees and plants to attract Dark-eyed Juncos


In urban areas of the West these birds sometimes nest in large evergreen broad-leafed bushes or similar ornamental shrubs surrounded by lawn with scattered large trees. This can include cemeteries, city parks, business centers, large pedestrian traffic medians, or college campuses--any parklike setting. They may even nest in residential backyards of older parts of town with large established trees and landscaping.

If you live in a town in the forest, then planting some dense evergreen bushes such as azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons may convince Dark-eyed Juncos to nest. You might plant some spruce trees with branches reaching to the ground. Remember, juncos usually nest on the ground in grass and vegetation against the trunk of a tree or bush. So you don't want to trim the bottom of the bush away from the ground or the juncos won't nest there.

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

In the winter time, juncos will quickly find your bird feeders. They like the lawns and landscaped smaller bushes or short trees of backyards. Your vegetable garden will provide them with weed seeds and bare spots that they love.

If you have a flower garden you might let it go to seed. Zinnias and cosmos are mentioned by some as flowers that attract juncos after they have gone to seed.

What niche does the Dark-eyed Junco fill?


Juncos feed mostly on weed seeds and insects (especially in summer) they find on the ground. As other sparrows they hop or scratch the ground under bushes, turning over leaves to find food. They take advantage of grasses and weeds that grow after a fire in a conifer forest or logging creates a clearing.

They may thus compete for food with White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows. Nevertheless, they are often seen in winter flocks with these other sparrows.



Back to the Overview page for the Dark-eyed Junco.


Friday, February 14, 2020

How to start bird watching

Many people seek the peace and beauty that the natural world brings. Birds are frequently the most active and colorful living creatures encountered in the out-of-doors. They are found everywhere and active during daylight hours. No wonder bird watching is so popular.

But you may have wondered: How do I start bird watching? What equipment do I need? Are there any special "rules" I need to know about?

Photo of a Western Bluebird on a fencepost
Western Bluebird
Photo by Greg Gillson

Bird watching your way: How to start out


Good news! There aren't any rules to bird watching. You can do it however you like, whatever is most enjoyable to you. You can start watch birds out your living room window, sitting on a park bench, on a strenuous hike up a forested mountain, on a foreign business trip, or even while kayaking! You might watch birds only occasionally while on vacation. Or perhaps you get bit by the birding bug and plan bird watching excursions every chance you get.

You can choose to feed birds at home and have them come to you. You can scour remote wilderness areas to find birds you've never seen before. You can chase after reported rarities. You might care only about hummingbirds, or ducks, or hawks. You can spend a lifetime observing the behavior of just one species. You might spend a day driving quickly from place-to-place trying to see 100 different species in a 24-hour period. It is all bird watching!

Don't forget that bird watching (also known as birding) is not necessarily all about your eyes. Birds also give a variety of calls and delightful songs. Each bird species can be identified by their unique songs. The dawn chorus is the amazing simultaneous singing of scores of bird species just before sunrise in spring. In wooded areas many bird detections are first made by hearing them. And a majority of the birds you find in such woodland hikes may actually be heard only--never seen. Now that birding-by-ear skill takes lots of practice!

Many bird watchers take photographs of the birds they see. I always carry my binoculars and a DSLR camera with a very large lens around my neck! Only a very few use audio recording equipment to record bird songs and calls.

[This short and delightful video below is of nature artist instructor Jack Laws on why bird watching is better than mammal watching]



What equipment do you need to get started watching birds?


When most people talk of birding they mean 1) seeing birds, and 2) identifying birds.

To start watching birds you need binoculars to help you see birds better and a field guide to help you identify the birds you see. Everything else is optional.

Binoculars


Your binoculars can make or break your bird watching experience. A poor pair of binoculars can cause excessive eye strain as well as giving a substandard view. If all you have is a cheap $60 pair of binoculars, realize you are missing out. On the other hand, for your first pair of birding binoculars, I don't recommend you buy the very best $2500 brands.

For starting out I suggest a pair that is 8x42 and waterproof/fog proof. If you are in the open looking at distant ducks or hawks primarily, then a 10x42 is an acceptable choice. In general, 8x are better than 10x for brightness in dreary weather or in the woods, ability to focus on closer birds (<8 feet), providing a wide field of view to find active birds in the tree tops (>390 feet @ 1000 yards), and ability to be used with eyeglasses (>15.5 mm eye relief).

You want roof prism binoculars with ED glass that is fully multicoated, BaK-4 prisms with phase and dielectric coatings, and nitrogen (or argon) purged waterproof/fog proof.

I would say that the minimum quality binoculars, even to start with, cost about $150. The best lowest-priced binocular for bird watching is the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42. Don't go cheaper if you can at all help it. If you can afford $500 you will be able to have a binocular that is nearly as good as the very best and will last you a decade or even a lifetime.




Read my articles on birding binoculars available for under $200 and also best birding binoculars under $500.

Field guide


If you are just getting started you may want to use a local state birding field guide. These show the 50-100 most common bird species of each state. Stan Tekiela has written such bird books for every state. Click on this link to be taken to the Amazon page of Mr. Tekiela's bird books.

However, if you become interested in birds and bird watching it won't take long before you encounter species or plumages not illustrated in the simpler state guides. Each state will have 400-500 species recorded, maybe 300-350 regularly. The simpler state guides will not show all female and first-year birds, or may scrimp on summer versus winter plumages, or variation from place to place.

I recommend the National Geographic Birds of North American, now (February 2020) in the 7th Edition. Here is the Amazon link for this, my favorite field guide.




I also have the Sibley app downloaded on my smart phone. It is about $20. Let's see, I have an Android phone. So I go to the App Store on my phone to purchase and upload The Sibley eGuide to North American Birds. This is basically just the paper field guide in digital format with some audio calls and songs to play to remind you what the birds sound like. There are newer and fancier birding apps with additional features. But when I'm in the field, I want to be looking at the birds, not my field guide, paper or digital.

Notepad and pen


New bird watchers just starting out will frequently encounter birds that they just can't name at the time. Write down what you see to look it up later. First: size, shape, bill type. This will get you to the family group. Then the colors of head, back, breast, belly, wings, tail. Note field marks such as eye rings, eye stripes, wing bars, tail spots. Don't forget habitat, behavior, calls or songs.

Dress properly


Birding often starts at dawn when it may be cold and continues into late morning when it may become hot. Be sure to have clothing for the day to keep you comfortable.

Wear sturdy shoes appropriate for the weather and terrain. Do you have to worry about snakes or thorns or rocks or mud puddles?

You don't need to wear camouflage as hunters do. But don't wear bright colors. Wear dull earth colors: brown, navy, green. And make sure your clothes or jacket isn't made of material that rustles or squeaks as you walk.

Water and a snack


I often bird in remote areas, or explore areas new to me. Then I find that I am nowhere near a town for food at lunch time! So bring snacks. Carry water and drink it. I often don't carry water, and when I do I often don't drink it until I'm back at the car. So, don't be like Greg--carry and drink your water!




Where do you go bird watching?


Deciding where to go bird watching can provide hours of research and planning. For those just starting out, you may learn much about your local area you didn't know before.

If you are looking for a specific bird you need to find the right habitat. Many large parks and wildlife refuges have checklists that tell when and how common species are.

Where do you look for public places to watch birds? State refuges, National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, National Forests, State Parks, State Beaches, BLM areas, Open Space Preserves. You can look for hiking trails or Auto Tour routes.

Check the websites for your local Audubon Societies. They will often list places to watch birds. Seek "birding site guides" for your site or area. Even Googling "where to watch birds in [your city/county/state]" will lead to web sites of interest.

Join your local birding email list


Learn from others by joining such lists and "lurk" for a while [read without responding] before making your first post. Read the postings and see what kind of information each list conveys. Some lists are for only reporting rare birds. Some lists are more geared toward more social aspects. The American Birding Association has a list of birding email lists right on their home page.

Look for local field trips


Your local Audubon Society will often lead free bird walks for beginners and more advanced birders alike. So may a local backyard bird shops. Do you have any Nature Centers in your area? Check them out!

Photo of male Cinnamon Teal stretching his wings on the shoreline
Cinnamon Teal
Photo by Greg Gillson

Best practices when you start birding: Fieldcraft


Would you like some tips for bird watching? Tips on finding and approaching wildlife are called fieldcraft. Fieldcraft includes your behavior and the bird's behavior--understanding what you see.

Bird watchers need patience and perseverance. Go slow and examine trees and bushes for movement. Listen for soft feeding calls. You may find that several species are traveling together and feeding, with not much bird activity away from this feeding flock.

Birds are most active at and just after dawn. You may need to arrive early. The early bird gets the worm. The early bird watcher gets the bird!

Examine your surroundings. Is there water nearby? A grove of trees? Do any of the adjoining homes have bird feeders visible? Birds generally love edges between two habitats. Walking that edge slowly is often a good place to start birding.

On my blog of San Diego birds I wrote several articles on fieldcraft: the art of finding more birds. When you are done reading this article you may wish to check out some of those fieldcraft articles. I suggest you start with the article: Stalking birds: 25 tips to get closer to birds without scaring them away. The fieldcraft label will lead to more of my articles on that other website.

Most of all, be quiet and observant. Curiosity about the natural world will often lead to finding birds.

I always recommend Birding Essentials for learning about bird watching. But I think this is a great little book whether you are a beginner or have more experience.



Recording your observations: eBird


The free birding app, eBird is an online checklist program where you can record the birds you see. It becomes a powerful tool as it combines tens-of-millions of bird records by birders around the world.

eBird is great for beginning birders. Even if you never enter a bird species yourself, you should use it to find birding hotspots in your local area and view the both the bird checklists and the birds recently seen in the hotspots or in your county as a whole.

I recommend that new bird watchers sign up for an eBird account and begin submitting checklists right away. Start by going out in your backyard and recording a stationary checklist for 5 or 10 minutes of all the birds you can see and hear. Submit it to eBird.

The eBird program will tell you which species are expected for your area and which species are rare. If you report a rare species you will need to write a brief report of what you saw into the eBird checklist: remember describe size, shape, bill type and field marks and behaviors. Provide a photo if you are into bird photography.

There are local birders who act as eBird Reviewers for rare bird reports. They may contact you by email about your rare bird reports. Don't be afraid of being wrong, or the reviewer asking for more details, or suggesting a more common look-alike species. Think of these volunteer Reviewers as a free tutor!



Okay, I've written more than I wanted to for one article. I have much more to say! Expect more articles in the future on more specific aspects of bird watching.



Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What do Dark-eyed Juncos like to eat?

Dark-eyed Juncos are tiny sparrows found in brushy conifer and mixed woodland edges, across Alaska, Canada, the Northeast, and mountains of the West.

In winter, these "snow birds" descend to lowlands and move south throughout the United States into open weedy areas and backyards. They are one of the first winter birds to find your feeders.

This page is a supplement to my overview of the Dark-eyed Junco. The overview page leads to other more in-depth pages on identification, range and habitat, nesting and reproduction, and back to this page on foods and diet.

Dark-eyed Junco eating an invertebrate.
Photo by Greg Gillson.

Diet and Natural Food


Dark-eyed Juncos eat lots of seeds throughout the year. In fact, over 75% of the diet of juncos is small seeds (source). In winter, even more of the diet is seeds. Most of the seeds juncos eat are small. They include grass seeds, small grains, and weed seeds. Some of the weed seeds that make up a large part of their diet includes seeds of ragweed, smartweed, pigweed, lamb's-quarters, chickweed, purslane, vetch, sorrels, thistles, crabgrasses. They also eat seeds of garden flowers including those of zinnias and cosmos (Source: Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds).

They also eat beetles, moths, caterpillars and similar invertebrates, especially in summer. Other insects that juncos eat include weevils, grasshoppers, true bugs, ants, wasps, and spiders. Almost half of summer food is composed of these invertebrates.

Parent juncos primarily feed insects to their nestlings. Once the young fledge, they begin eating more seeds.


Dark-eyed Juncos at the backyard feeder


Foods to attract Dark-eyed Juncos


At your backyard bird feeder Dark-eyed Juncos will prefer the smaller millet seeds over whole sunflower seeds. Red proso millet and white proso millet are their favorite food by far.

Canary seed and fine cracked corn were additional foods preferred by juncos.

Juncos like black oil sunflower seeds more than striped sunflower seeds. But they liked the smaller seeds listed above more than sunflower seeds. (source)

What does this mean? Dark-eyed Juncos will like mixed seed blends, as long as there isn't very much milo seed in it. Dark-eyed Juncos will eat milo. However, milo is especially attractive to Brown-headed Cowbirds and House Sparrows, viewed as undesirable feeder birds by most people. So, while juncos will eat bird seed with milo, it is better not to buy seed with that ingredient (at least not one of the first 3 ingredients listed).

Guess what? While researching this article I found that there is such a thing as hulled millet! This should greatly reduce the mess of inedible husks under your feeder!

[Check the price of non-messy hulled millet on Amazon]

I like the ingredient list in this Wagner's mixed bird seed. It is about 40% sunflower seeds of various types in order to attract the widest variety of birds. It has smaller seeds that juncos love, without very much milo. So it is not as attractive to Brown-headed Cowbirds and House Sparrows, if you'd rather not feed those two species.



What is the best bird feeder for Dark-eyed Juncos?

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.

Here is a platform feeder that would be attractive to Dark-eyed Juncos and other ground feeding sparrows and towhees. These can be mounted on a pole or hung from a sturdy hook. Juncos will actually like them best placed low to the ground. If you do put the feeder very low to the ground, keep them 10 feet from any bush where a cat may hide behind and pounce. Smaller platform feeders can be placed right on a deck railing or fence post.

Click on pic to view on Amazon

If you want to take the do-it-yourself route, then juncos will eat from any kind of tray or saucer. Such a tray should have good drainage to keep the seeds from soaking up water. The floor of such a feeder is best as a fine mesh or screen to allow good air flow. Then wet seeds can quickly dry out. No seeds should remain more than a couple of days if wet to prevent mold and mildew. Replace wet seed with dry fresh seed.

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, especially if it includes some small seeds.

Feeding and foraging behavior


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 low standing plants by flying up and landing on the seed head and using their weight to "ride" the seed head to the ground.

They often mix with other sparrows in winter. They are frequently seen with Chipping Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows where their ranges overlap. Winter habitat includes road side edges lined with brush and bird feeders.

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) In winter they feed in active twittering flocks on the ground, flashing their white outer tail feathers.

They feed in the open, but dive for cover at the first sign of danger. At this time they are more likely to flee up into low trees and the top of brush, rather than low down. They give smacking and twittering calls keeping an eye on any intruder.

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 saucers on the ground filled with water. Try using the glazed 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.

Return to the overview of the Dark-eyed Junco.

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