Friday, January 4, 2008

Common Feeder Birds: Dark-eyed Junco

On New Year's Day, my sister asked me to identify a bird at her feeder. She described it as a small mostly black bird with white and a yellow bill. As I watched out the window to see the bird, up pops a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).

This bird is also known as a snow bird, because they generally show up here in Indianapolis in the winter. We usually spot the first juncos in November. Its species name, hyemalis, is very appropriate since it means winter or wintery.

Juncos are a little over six inches in length with an average weight of nineteen grams. This is less than the weight of four shiny quarters. Despite their size, they are voracious eaters and enjoy hopping around on the ground picking up seeds the other birds have knocked to the ground. They will eat from the feeders, but prefer to scratch around on the ground.

When walking through a shrubby or grassy area, the juncos will be everywhere. They will hang in small flocks nervously darting around flashing their white outer tail feathers as they fly. Their call is a sharp, somewhat buzzy tzeet, that they utter while flying into the brush for cover.

There are a few races or subspecies of juncos here in Indiana. The most common is the Slate-colored, which is dark gray to black overall for the males and a gray-brown for the females. Both sexes have a white belly and white outer tail feathers. The Oregon subspecies is an uncommon winter visitor with a dark hood and a brownish back, white belly and orangish-brown flanks.

Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco

I am unaware of any juncos breeding in Indiana, but there have been accounts of them breeding in extreme northeast Ohio. The main breeding range for the slate-colored junco that frequents Indiana feeders is Canada, northeast Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, the northern lower penninsula of Michigan, central Pennsylvania and the New England area.

Enjoy these fiesty little birds at your feeders this winter. They love black-oiled sunflower seeds. Since they prefer to feed on the ground, I will cast some on the ground specifically for them and some of the sparrows. They will take suet, thistle and other seeds.

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