Meet the Dark-Eyed Junco, Our Resident Snowbird

Winter is the best time to learn your birds! The leaves from the trees that block the view of birds flitting from branch to branch are long gone. Plus there are fewer birds to learn. One snowbird to discover is the dark-eyed junco.

A dark-eyed junco. (Photo via Shutterstock)

These birds are called snowbirds because here in Will County we see them in the winter. They start arriving in October and stay until April. But where are they coming from? They spend their summer breeding season further north in the forests of Canada up through Alaska.


Physical features


Dark-eyed juncos are small, compact sparrows that look almost like fluffy balls — perfect to survive the cold. They are dark brownish-gray on top and white on bottom. One way to help remember them is that they look like a dark winter night: dark skies on top and snow on the bottom. They have pink beaks and dark eyes. Keep an eye out for a streak of bright white on their tails. The contrast of the white streak against the rest of the dark feathers appears to flash as they fly by.


Bird food


Seeds are the food of choice for dark-eyed juncos. They chomp down on seeds of chickweed, buckwheat, lamb’s quarters, sorrel and more. At bird feeders, they’ll eat millet seeds and sunflower seeds. During breeding season — the warmer months — dark-eyed juncos will indulge in insects like beetles, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, ants, wasps and flies.


Behavior


Look for large flocks of these birds here in woodlands, fields, parks, gardens and along roadsides. Forest preserves are excellent places to see these juncos!


Flocks of dark-eyed juncos have a pecking order. Early arrivals to Will County seem to rank higher in the group than those that came later in the season.

These little birds are so much fun to watch. They hop around on the snow and flit from branch to branch. When they fly, they are agile and graceful. Listen for their song: a trill or a “smack” call. Take a listen.

Good luck birding! Hopefully you’ll see lots of our winter friend, the dark-eyed junco. Having a difficult time finding them near you? Check out the Forest Preserve District’s bird-feeding stations at Monee Reservoir, Plum Creek Nature Center, Isle a la Cache and Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. Each facility will have signs up showing you how to ID different birds, and you can scan the posted QR code to record your own bird list!


The feeding stations and QR codes are part of the Forest Preserve District's bird feeding and watching initiative featuring interpretive signs, QR codes and roving naturalists who will educate visitors about all things birds.

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