Dark- Eyed Junco

 

Dark-eyed JuncoDuring the winter in Oklahoma, it is not unusual to find dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) at backyard bird feeders or on the ground beneath them. In fact, they are an excellent indicator that winter has arrived.

These small birds prefer cold climates and retreat north as spring arrives. Some populations of juncos can be found in the northeast United States and Rocky Mountains year-round. Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most abundant forest birds in North America and they are also one of the most variable species with several subspecies. The bird has a round head, fairly long tail, stout bill and crisp markings. The junco’s color pattern differs with different regions, but in Oklahoma juncos have a slate gray head and chest with a white belly and pale bill. The outer tail feathers are white and can be seen during flight.

Juncos inhabit a variety of habitats. In the spring and summer they can be found in the coniferous and deciduous forests of North America. In the winter, juncos can be found anywhere from parks to backyards and roadsides. Juncos are usually solitary but during cold winter months they will form small flocks. They may also form mixed flocks with other small, seed-eating birds like chickadees and nuthatches. Within the flock, a strong hierarchy is present and centered around one dominant male. At feeders, this hierarchy may lead to aggressive behavior and flashing of the tail feathers.

Dark-eyed juncos are ground foragers and hop rather than walk. Like many other species of birds, they are primarily seed eaters although they do eat insects during their breeding season. They mainly forage for food on the ground but sometimes they fly very low in underbrush collecting food from twigs and leaves. At feeders they favor millet, but will also eat milo, thistle and finely cracked corn.

In the summer breeding months, males are very territorial. They claim their territory by singing from the top of the tallest tree in a two to three-acre area. Juncos are monogamous and only have one mate per breeding season. Males will fan or flick open their wings and tail, hop up and down, and pick up pieces of nesting materials to lure a mate. Usually males with the most white in their tail are a female’s first choice. Juncos don’t reuse their nests, so every year females build a new one. Nesting material like twigs and moss are weaved together while the female’s body gives the nest its shape. It can take a female three to seven days to build a nest but the male often helps by bringing material.

Like many other bird species, dark-eyed juncos play an important role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. As seed and insect eaters, they help disperse seeds and help control insect populations. Watching these birds at backyard feeders is an enjoyable pastime. Birding is easy to learn, inexpensive, and fun for all ages. Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most common visitors to backyard feeders so there is an excellent chance of spotting them. They favor yards with older, mature trees and low shrubbery. Platform or ground feeders are preferred but they will also eat fallen seeds from hanging feeders.

Every winter the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation encourages people to participate in the annual Winter Bird Feeder Survey. The survey lets bird enthusiasts contribute to bird conservation while enjoying their favorite pastime. Learn more about participating at wildlifedepartment.com or www.okwinterbirds.com