Nov 6, 2014 | Featured Web Article

Is There a Snowbird at Your Feeder?

Dark-eyed juncos are often called "snowbirds" because they seem to show up at our feeders and in our backyards at the same time as the first snows begin falling over much of the country.

Most Americans are familiar with the dark-eyed junco. Even those who don't watch birds often have probably noticed these common gray-and-white birds in their backyards. Dark-eyed juncos are often called "snowbirds" because they seem to show up at our feeders and in our backyards at the same time as the first snows begin falling over much of the country. For many of us, winter is the only time we have dark-eyed juncos around. They form large flocks in backyards, parks, and pastures, and along rural roadsides and woodland edges in just about every corner of the United States except southern Florida. Watch for the flash of white from their tail feathers as they dart between brush piles or scatter from feeding on the ground beneath a bird feeder.

How Can I Identify It?

Juncos are medium-sized sparrows (6 ¼ inches long), but unlike most sparrows, their plumage lacks streaking. Dark gray above and white below (or "gray skies above, snow below"), the junco has a cone-shaped, pinkish bill and flashes its white outer tail feathers in flight. Male juncos in the East are a darker gray than the brownish-overall females. Western juncos show a variety of plumage colors, and many of these color forms were considered separate species until recently. Now they are all lumped into a single species: dark-eyed junco. Juncos make a variety of sounds, all of them high-pitched tinkling trills, especially when flushed from cover. Their songs are very similar to those of the chipping sparrow—sometimes it's difficult to tell the two species apart when you can't see the singer.

Where Can I Find It?

These birds can be found throughout most of North America at some point in the year. In winter they can be found in every state. Look for them in brushy areas, fields, and, of course, in your backyard. They are often seen scratching through leaf litter, grass, or snow when looking for food. In spring, most juncos retreat to the far-north woods of Canada to breed, though the New England states and some areas in the West have juncos year-round. Spring migration begins as early as March and continues through early June. Fall migration occurs from mid-August through October.

What Can I Feed or Do to Attract It?

Juncos find their food on the ground, so in backyards they tend to hang around beneath bird feeders, picking through dropped seeds. They love white millet, which is found in most mixed wild birdseed blends and can also be purchased separately. Place some millet on a platform feeder or directly on the ground for best results. Another effective way to attract juncos is by building a brush pile near your feeding station. In spring and summer, juncos shift their diet from seeds to mostly insects, including caterpillars, grasshoppers, and spiders, and berries.

Where Does It Nest?

The junco's nest is a simple, open cup of grasses and leaves, loosely woven and lined with finer grasses, fur, or feathers. Nests are normally located on the ground in a concealed spot and built by the female. She incubates her three to five eggs for almost two weeks; the male helps with feeding chores once the young hatch. Within two weeks the young birds leave the nest, and the parents are free to start another brood if the season permits.

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »

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  • I live in Southeastern Massachusetts. Four "orphaned" very young poults (males) showed up in my yard about a year ago. They have been around all year. I do feed them cracked corn, and they come when I call for them. I don't want to over- domesticate them, but they do recognize me as the lady that brings food. They roost in the big oak trees at night. I have a 1 acre lot, with many acres of protected forest out back and a pond on the property.Lately, during mating season, I have had hens in the yard too. We've counted as many as 7 Toms and hens, but today, had just the one stalwart (a very robust Tom) that comes everyday. One of the Toms that has recently made an appearance is wounded, limping with an obvious predator wound. The local wildlife experts say he should make a full recovery, and that he's best left to recover with his flock.I find them to be interesting and beautiful birds.
    by Heather Cole, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • You have to put food in it.
    by Truckee Man, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • Love listeningto both songs and calls from birds in our woody neighborhood. The two types of birds I immediately recognize are the cardinals and the chickadees. Yesterday afternoon too, I heard a woodpecker. Then it’s time to check the birdfeeders and the birdbath. Then In no time at all the cardinals and chickadees arrive, as if they had been watching me. As it gets busier around the feeders, I also hear thé screeching of the blue jays. I even saw a couple of robins checking out our lawn....spring has arrived as the last pat gesofisticeerde snow and ice melt away.
    by louisabt, Sun, 08 Mar 2020
  • I am wondering about existing nests for Phoebes. I have two outdoor aisle entries to my barn and there are old Phoebe nests up. They ignore them each year and build new nests adjacent to the old, but space is running out. Should I knock down the old nests so they can rebuild?
    by [email protected], Sun, 02 Feb 2020
  • Just wondering, should we put anything in the bottom of the box...twigs, clippings, leaves....anything at all?
    by Hebb, Tue, 28 Jan 2020