Keep Your Eye on the Sparrows

Dark-eyed Juncos return to these parts in cold weather


By Susan Campbell

“The snowbirds are back!” No, not the thin-blooded retirees — you won’t see them until spring. But you will see the little black-and-white, sparrowlike birds that appear under feeders when the mercury dips here in central North Carolina. They can be found in flocks, several dozen strong in places. And, in spite of what you might think, they are far from dependent on birdseed in winter.

Dark-eyed juncos are a diverse and widely distributed species, with six populations recognized across the United States, Canada and Mexico. Some have white wing bars, others sport reddish backs, and the birds in the high elevations of the Rockies are recognized by the extensive pinkish feathering on their flanks. Our eastern birds are known as “slate-colored juncos” for their dark-brown to gray feathering. As with most migrant songbirds, their migratory behavior is based on food availability, not weather. Flocks will fly southward, stopping where they find abundant grasses and forbs. They will continue  traveling once the food plants have been stripped of seed.

Dark-eyed juncos can be found throughout North America at different times of the year. During the breeding season, juncos are found at high elevation across the boreal forests nesting in thick evergreens. Our familiar slate-colored variety breeds as close as the high elevations of the Appalachians. You can find them easily around Blowing Rock and Boone year round. Watch for male juncos advertising their territories up high in fir or spruce trees. They will utter sharp chips and may string together a series of rapid call notes that sounds like the noise emitted by a “phaser” of Star Trek fame.

In winter, flocks congregate in open and brushy habitats. Juncos are distinguished from other sparrows by their clean markings: dark heads with small, pale, conical bills, pale bellies and white outer tail feathers. Females have a browner wash and less of a demarcation between belly and breast than males. They hop around and feed on small seeds close to ground level. Some individuals can be quite tame once they become familiar with a specific place and particular people. Juncos do communicate frequently, using sharp trills to keep the flock together. They will not hesitate to dive for deep cover when alarmed.

So the next time you come upon a flock along the roadside or notice juncos under your feeder, take a close look. These little birds will only be with us a few months, until day length begins to increase and they head back to the boreal forests from whence they came.  OH

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