Dark-eyed juncos: Harbingers of winter

By Jeanne Church

Dark-eyed juncos could very well be considered the harbingers of winter here in the lower half of the lower peninsula of Michigan. They arrive from their breeding grounds in northern Michigan, Canada, and Alaska as soon as our cold weather arrives, and stay until early spring.

You have probably seen dark-eyed juncos at one time or another, but they are not always easy to identify from a distance. To begin with, juncos are very small, only slightly bigger than a house finch. They are also rather nondescript. Male juncos are mostly dark gray, and females are a mix of light grays and browns. Both males and females have distinctive white underbellies, but the underbelly is not always visible when you’re observing these birds foraging on the ground – which is their favorite place to be. When juncos take flight, though, you’ll see a brief flash of their white tail feathers and know for sure it’s a junco. At rest, those white tail feathers are all but invisible.

If you do come across a dark-eyed junco in Michigan, it will probably be a male. Studies have shown that about 80% of the winter junco flocks in Michigan are male. The males apparently choose to risk a harsh winter in lower Michigan so that they can be the first ones back to their northern breeding grounds in the spring to stake out territory. The females, for the most part, go farther south. In Alabama, for example, a whopping 72% of the dark-eyed Juncos are female!

Surprisingly, not all juncos look alike. There is a huge range of geographic variation among them. The ones that we have here in Michigan do not look like the ones you see out west. There are, in fact, 15 different types of juncos! The two most common forms, though, are the slate-colored junco and the Oregon junco. The slate-colored junco, the one you are most likely to see here in Michigan, can be found all across the eastern United States and throughout most of Canada. The Oregon junco, on the other hand, is found across much of the western United States and, on very rare occasions, can also be found in the western part of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It has a very distinctive dark hood, with a warm, brown back, and rufous colored flanks. In January of last year, I was lucky enough to get a picture of an Oregon junco sitting in a tree just beyond our second story deck!

Dark-eyed Juncos are primarily seed-eaters. In the wild, 75% of their diet consists of the seeds found in chickweed, ragweed, pigweed, crabgrass, buckwheat, lamb’s quarters, sorrel and similar plants. At your feeders, they will eat sunflower and safflower seeds, cracked corn, peanut hearts, oats and milo, but millet seems to be their favorite. During the breeding season, they eat mostly insects.

Keep an eye out for these delightful little birds. They are quite abundant and can be found all winter in southwest Michigan. If you’re really lucky, you might also spot a black-hooded Oregon junco!

You can follow Jeanne at her blog: picturewalks.org.

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