It’s that time again here in The Adirondacks, and mountain residents know all too well the confinement and extra chores that come with SNOW. My Husband and I find a great deal of joy and contentment feeding and watching the birds, and there is no time like winter to observe the lives and behaviors of our friendly visiting birds. One of the most entertaining winter birds is the dark eyed junco. These little birds are the real snowbirds, unlike humans who are called snowbirds for fleeing the winter temps in search of warmer territory, these little birds arrive in the Northeast in time for snow fall and will fly northward once signs of spring appear.
Juncos are very social and will gather in flocks that may have two dozen birds or more. A flock of juncos is called a chittering, flutter, crew, or host. Juncos will also join flocks with chickadees, sparrows, and kinglets. Due to their similar coloring and size, the junco is sometimes confused with a chickadee but can be differentiated by several factors. Once you identity the differences in each bird, you will immediately recognize who is who and their intriguing habits.
Juncos are fluffy littles bundles of feathers, acquiring 30% more plumage during the winter months, giving them a robust appearance. Juncos are sometimes overlooked due to the fact they’re plain looking ground feeders who really blend in with the dingy snowy landscape. Earth toned plumage appears on birds who spend most of their time on the ground as it provides protection from predators. Birds who are more colorful tend to live and feed higher up off the ground where they aren’t so vulnerable to cats and other dangers down low. People are drawn to birds for their colorful appearances, but don’t let the lack of bright coloring of the dark-eyed junco fool you into thinking they’re any less interesting.
They prefer to eat from the ground or lower riding, flat feeders with roofs that keep the snow off from the seeds. They can and will visit your hanging feeders, but you will find them on the ground more often than not, almost as though to pick up the scraps that have fallen from birds landing on the suspended feeders. While foraging for food in the snow, the junco performs a process called scratching or what we have named the Junco jig, in which they move their feet in tandem, forward then backward several times, uncovering seeds that may have been under the snow. Some of their favorite food is -hulled sunflower seed, white millet, and cracked corn and dried meal worms are a most delicious and nutritionally packed treat.
Juncos are songbirds and offer a natural orchestra outside your window, breaking the silence of winter. Juncos have a high, short chirp note that they often give in rapid succession when they fly and more slowly as they forage. A sharp but musical kew given by the dominant bird, appears to signal aggression and encourages other birds to move away. Male dark-eyed juncos sing a musical chorus of 7-23 notes that lasts up to 2 seconds. Male and females alike also sing a much quieter song in a series of whistles, trills, and warbles.
If you have had juncos visit you, they could be the very same birds year after year as these precious creatures live to be up to 11 years old, and are known to remember feeding sites throughout their lifetime. If you want to make a bunch of cute, winged friends just cast some of their favorite treats onto the ground on clear days and observe them flocking in and make sure to watch for the Junco jig that they are sure to perform in front of your eyes.
Photo courtesy of Jackie Woodcock
i love juncos, but my favorite ground feeder is the mourning dove and their cooing. but years of late the rapidly declining numbers of birds and varities is very alarming. from many hundreds of birds in the 70’s and 80’s to sometimes thousand plus at once, now a crowded bird feeder area is maybe 30-40 birds at a time on great day, but mostly 20 or less in a trickle. common birds in winter are often absent in last 5 years.
i show grandkids pictures of driveway covered with a thousand birds plus, they are amazed that could be possible. sadly they may very well see empty feeders in their lifetime. i am trying a new idea and tearing up lawn and field areas and planting mixed wildflowers and bird seed growing to maybe increase some bird populations and more variety again.
While you are planting, don’t forget fruit-bearing shrubs and trees. Serviceberry, sumac, viburnum, and many other species can be very beneficial to birds and pollinators at various times of the year – not to mention beautiful when in bloom.
Wow, that must have been quite a sight! I’m 45, so I can’t remember a larger bird population, as my family didn’t feed them when I was a child. What I do remember is how the windshield of the car would be absolutely covered in insect guts, and we’d have to scrub them off on a regular basis. That certainly doesn’t happen anymore. Less bugs = less food for birds? I’ve been focusing on planting as many native trees and shrubs as I can afford each spring, and especially the ones who sustain the largest amount of caterpillars for bird food. If you’ve not read any of Doug Tallamy’s books, I think you’d be really interested. He goes into this topic in depth and provides lots of good data and ideas for how we can change our yards for the benefit of native species.