Fall days continue to be beautiful with colourful leaves and warm weather lasting well into the month. As we continue to enjoy watching migrating birds in the skies and at our feeders as they make their way south, be on the lookout for our ‘snowbirds’ returning from the north. A good friend of mine told me she has had dark-eyed juncos in her garden over the past week. I had yet to see one… until this morning! They’re back!
Junco’s breed in northern Canada and Alaska during the spring and summer months and return to southern Canada and the northern USA in the fall. They will spend the fall and winter months in our region, returning to their breeding grounds in early spring.
These flashy little sparrows prefer forest edges rather than heavily wooded areas. You will also see them in fields and meadows, as well as your garden floor. They especially like spaces offering ground cover such as shrubs, bushes, and wood piles. Planting native plants and grasses is an ideal way to attract them to your yard. Letting these plants go to seed will entice Juncos to feast on the remnants.
Their diet changes seasonally. During the breeding season they will eat more insects including wasps, flies, ants, beetles, butterflies and caterpillars. The rest of the year they prefer seeds from sorrel, chickweed, and buckwheat plants. In the winter months they dine on seed preferring white millet, fine sunflower and sunflower hearts. Juncos are mostly ground feeders but will adapt to fly-through and hopper feeders.
Male dark-eyed juncos are handsome with their tuxedo-like feathers, showing off dark grey feathers on their backs with white undersides and outer tail feathers. Females are lighter in colour with a soft fawn coloured coat. Both male and females have pale pink beaks.
Their song is a very pleasant one-pitch trill consisting of 7-23 notes. Juncos use short chipping calls during flight and while foraging for seed. There is a pecking order with these birds. You may observe them chipping at each other while feeding with short bursts of flight. This is likely a dominant male showing his superiority over females and juveniles. Generally speaking though, they tend to feed contentedly in small flocks. Dark-eyed juncos will mate for life, and have been known to live as long as 11 years.
As we await the arrival of more ‘snowbirds’, including American Tree Sparrows, Purple Finches and Pine Siskins, sprinkle some seed on the ground to welcome back our Juncos!