The Dark-Eyed Junco is represented by five forms throughout the U S. At one time, they were recognized as separate species. Many still think the larger White Winged Junco of the Black Hills area may fit this belief. It seems to stay in an elliptical area adjacent to this part of the country. Ornithologists seem to believe, that because they interbreed easily and all have the dark eyes, that they are just different forms of one breed of bird. The Mexican Junco, of Southern Arizona has yellow eyes and is considered a separate species.
This small and delightful Sparrow is sometimes referred to as the Snow Bird. Early bird lovers related its dark back, as threatening clouds and its white breast as the snow. It will often appear in September in this part of the Midwest and Plaines states are designated by some as the harbinger of winter or bad weather. We see them in the fall, winter and early spring before it departs back up north in April or early May. At that time the Dark-eyed Junco returns to northern Minnesota and Canada, where it breeds. Most folks view this bird as a welcome and delightful whiter visitor in our yards. The whiter flocks may be large and they will patrol a territory of perhaps ten or twelve acres. These loose flocks seem to be steady all season and there is a defined pecking order. The older birds and male seem to dominate the females and younger birds. I have often referred to them as “tiny vacuum sweepers”, living on what the other birds have discarded to the ground and overlooked.
In its breeding area, the female builds the nest, usually on the ground. She seems to select a spot with a high bank, rocky steeps, or upturned roots of a tree, located under an overhanging plant of some sort. She will lay four or five eggs which take about thirteen days to hatch. The young will leave the nest in ten or eleven more days and the parents both feed them for about three weeks. There are normally two nestings, but the second clutch seems to be restricted to three eggs.
During their stay here in the winter they often pick a thick conifer or cedar tree for roosting at night as it will provide shelter and safety from both weather and predators. They often return to the same wintering areas each year, so you may be seeing the same Juncos in your backyard each winter, provided they survived the nesting season up north. We love to see their vigorous scratching as they search for food. All native Sparrows scratch with their feet much like a chicken does to turn up seeds. When you are out in your yard this winter, listen for the soft smacking chips of this little bird. As spring approaches they will begin singing their musical little trill, which sounds something like the drier trill of the Chipping Sparrow. The Dark-eyed Junco then drifts silently away in late April, disappearing as mysteriously as it appeared in October.
Contributed by Mr. Weir Nelson of Wildlife Habitat, Cedar Rapids, Iowa