Every spring and every fall the same thing happens: my backyard bird feeding station and the surrounding lawn becomes covered with bundles of feathered joy—dark-eyed juncos. That these wild birds never stay for very long has always been a mild disappointment of mine (and maybe yours, too), but it’s always a welcome sight and a harbinger of seasons to come when juncos make their bi-annual visits.
Though many of us here in northern Minnesota might wonder, dark-eyed juncos are actually one of the most abundant species of wild birds in North America. We wonder because they’re only here for a short period of time as they migrate south in the fall and north in the spring. Minnesota is considered “non-breeding” range of juncos. I guess, at least to juncos, Minnesota is a fly-over state.
Belonging to a very large group of birds, juncos are members of the sparrow family. Once belonging to the family Emberizidae, juncos now belong to a new family of birds: Passerellidae. This latter family of birds include only new world sparrows such as those familiar to us here in North America: chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, eastern towhee, and many others.
Anyone with eyes and ears for phenology are very aware of the meaning behind the arrival of juncos. Right now juncos are migrating further north into Canada where the birds breed and nest. When they make stopovers in our backyards, it’s only for a short time before they’re gone again. Juncos’ long migrations require them to stop, rest, and feed, so our feeding stations are natural attractants for hungry juncos.
A few evenings ago while boiling a batch of sugar maple sap over a propane burner on my deck, I was delighted when more than 200 juncos descended upon my yard. Having time to daydream since my sap-boil had a long way to go before it was time for finishing it into syrup, I stood and enjoyed the sights and sounds as my backyard brimmed with the activities and vocalizations of juncos.
Though not especially prone to feeding directly from birdfeeders, some juncos did land on the platform of my feeder to pick at black-oil sunflower seeds and other whatnots. The vast majority of the flock, however, was on the ground doing what juncos do best. These species of birds behave like barnyard chickens as they scratch at the earth and pick with their beaks anything they might uncover that looks good to eat (although in the case of juncos, they scratch with both feet at the same time).
Juncos are musical birds with sweet songs and pleasing calls. Males sing a beautiful and loud musical trill that’s similar to that of a chipping sparrow. With elements of warbler and goldfinch, both sexes produce softer songs replete with warbles, trills, and whistles, too. Call-notes are varied and interesting sounding as well when juncos forage together and constantly make chipping calls to one another.
Other calls are emitted when they flush or are otherwise alarmed or agitated. For example, when I made a sudden movement on the deck while boiling sap, the entire flock flushed at once with most of them vocalizing successive chips as they sped off. Later, when the flock filtered back and resumed their evening foraging, I would occasionally hear musical “kew” notes. A closer examination of just when certain types of calls were used revealed behaviors that ranged from interactions where personal space was invaded or when prime food sources were being guarded or trespassed on.
Juncos aren’t the flashiest of our beloved wild birds, but they certainly are one of the most entertaining. Their gray and white plumage, pinkish bills, and white outer tail feathers set them apart from most other species of birds. Even so, there’s no mistaking their sparrow-like appearance and vociferous nature—juncos, their name itself endearing—is a bird we all appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane enjoys getting feedback from readers and hearing about your stories from Minnesota’s great outdoors. Email him at email@example.com.