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.
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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 have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018