Monday, April 22, 2013

Adirondack Birds: The Dark-Eyed Junco

600px-Dark-eyed_Junco-27527Strong southerly wind in spring not only brings periods of mild weather to our region, but also helps usher in numerous species of migratory birds from their wintering grounds. Among the early arrivals to the Adirondacks, often before the snow finally disappears from wooded areas and north-facing hillsides, is a cold-hardy member of the sparrow family. Although this handsome bird is just as abundant throughout the Park as the white-throated sparrow, even in the harsh climate of upper elevations, the dark-eyed junco does not enjoy the same level of notoriety as its white-throated cousin.

The dark-eyed junco, (Junco hyemalis) known to most as simply a junco, is a common bird that is easy to recognize. The slate-gray color of its head and back stands in sharp contrast to its white underside and its stubby, creamy-pink bill. Also, the junco has white outer tail feathers that become particularly noticeable when it flicks it tail.

The junco strongly prefers to inhabit brushy fields and the edges of softwood forests as far north as the tree line. In the Park, the junco thrives in stands of conifers around campgrounds, in patches of rough along the border of golf course fairways, in dense clumps of brush beneath electrical transmission lines, and on the open summits of the High Peaks.

As with all sparrows, the short and thick bill of the junco is adapted for cracking open small seeds from weeds and shrubs. Its appetite for seeds often lures this bird to feeders in early spring before large patches of bare ground become available for foraging. Feeders containing small seeds, like those of thistle rather than sunflowers seeds, are more attractive to the junco; however, this bird will consume dozens of sunflowers seeds when nothing else is available.

Once the snow melts, the junco spends much of its time in patches of dense growth in semi-open woodlands and brushy thickets, where it scours the ground for seeds. Like other sparrows, the junco claws at the leaf litter in an attempt to uncover edible items. It may also be seen pecking at the soil surface once it has located a collection of seeds. With the approach of nesting season, the female junco begins to incorporate a fair amount of protein in her diet. Small bugs, like grubs, ants, and spiders are routinely ingested when they are uncovered from the debris on the forest floor.

The males are the first to arrive on the northern breeding grounds, followed in a week or two by the females. While both sexes have identical color patterns, the gray plumage of the male is ever so slightly richer, and especially noticeable if both birds are seen close to one another. The males use their voice to proclaim ownership of a parcel of land, which is reported to average several acres in size. While the song of the junco is not as musically appealing as that of the white-throated sparrow, this sound is just as evident throughout the Park as that of its cousin. The junco produces 6 to 9 quick tweets that are strung together into a twittering-trill call. It is said by researchers that each male produces a slightly different rendition of its song, which can be noted by a person with an ear for musical patterns. (I am totally unable to differentiate between the songs of two neighboring juncos, as I have a hard enough time distinguishing the song of a junco from that of a chipping sparrow.)

Once the male secures a territory, and a female has been enticed into residing there for the next 3 to 4 months, the process of nest construction begins. As with other sparrows, the junco prefers to construct its nest directly on the ground. Usually the tennis ball size cup is situated against some barrier, like a stump, rock, small bank, ledge, or other obstacle that prevents it from being seen from one complete direction. The nest also tends to be placed where the leaves from a low twig, fronds from a nearby fern, or blades from a clump of grass overhang this delicate structure and obscure its view from above.

When one hikes anywhere in the Adirondacks, the likelihood of passing close to a nesting pair of juncos is about the same as passing a chipmunk scampering about the forest floor or a chickadee fluttering about the lower limbs. It is never easy to spot a junco because of its preference for a life in places with limited visibility, but noting that one or several pairs of juncos are in the immediate area is not that challenging, for like the white-throated sparrow, this birds periodically uses its vocal talents to announces its presence here in the Adirondacks.

Photo of female Junco by Ken Thomas.

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.




3 Responses

  1. RG HOAG says:

    Good article, Have seen more juncos this spring than I can remember.

  2. Terry Rozycki says:

    Last year I had a pair of Juncos build a nest in a hanging spider plant on my porch. We were privileged to watch 4 eggs hatch and then to watch the young grow and fledge. Then, this month we noticed two Juncos “checking out” that same area – only the plants were not there yet. Hope they come back in June.

  3. Markf says:

    At least fifty of them have been gobbling sunflower seeds over the last few days, at our house.

    They’re a little to oblivious to other animals for my liking. easy prey for a cat.

    The sound of all of them singing in a Junco chorus is very nice.

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