If you have a back yard bird feeder in Southern Ontario, you’ve probably seen dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) hopping about in your yard. The dark-eyed Junco is one of the most common forest birds in North America with an estimated population of about 630 million individuals!
They can be found throughout the boreal forest during the summer and migrate south for the winter. Their winter range is extensive – they can be found as far north and Southern Ontario and as far south as Northern Mexico. In Southern Ontario you might see Juncos year round, but the birds you see in winter are probably not the same individuals you see in summer.
The dark-eyed junco is a medium sized sparrow with a rounded head, short bill and fairly long tail. There is a lot of colour variation in dark-eyed juncos across North America.
Western populations typically have a black hood, chestnut mantle, and white undersides, whereas Eastern populations are typically a slate grey colour with white undersides. Some isolated populations have white tail feathers and wing bars, and others have a reddish-brown back. In general the females are less colourful than the males.
The dark-eyed junco is a ground nester, preferring habitats with dense shrubs and other ground cover, particularly during the mating season. During migration and over the winter season it is less picky and can be found in a range of habitats including forests, harvested agricultural fields, lawns and road margins. During the mating season these birds are quite territorial, but they form large flocks in their winter habitat.
These birds are primarily seed eaters but during the breeding season they also eat insects such as beetles, butterflies and moths, caterpillars, ants, wasps and flies. They typically hop along the ground, pecking and scratching the group to find seeds, or flit around in the underbrush to catch insects on twigs and leaves. Their flight is very agile to manoeuvre through the shrubby vegetation.
Dark-eyed juncos have interesting breeding behaviour. Males fan and flick open their tail feathers and wings and hop up and down to court females. A male and female pair will be socially monogamous, meaning that they make a nest and defend their territory together, however they also tend to mate with their neighbours which results in male juncos frequently raising young that are not their own. Usually four eggs are laid per brood, and more southerly populations may have two broods per season.
Their nests are usually made on the ground concealed under rocks, roots, or logs. It takes between three and seven days for the female to make the nest, which may be as simple as a depression in the ground being lined with grasses and pine needles. Other nests are more elaborate, with a foundation of twigs, leaves, and moss and a lining of grass, ferns, root hairs and fine moss. The finished nests are usually between 3 and 5 inches in diameter.
To attract the dark-eyed junco to your back yard, plant native shrubs and allow a few native grasses or weeds to grow. This will give the birds a source of food – native seeds – as well as the ground cover they need. Juncos are a common visitor at bird feeders, but you’re more likely to attract them with millet rather than sunflower seeds.