A common winter visitor to local bird feeders, the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) observed in our area, is actually one of five subspecies. This subspecies, the Slate-colored Junco, is found throughout North America, but is the one commonly found in the East. It is affectionately known as the “snow bird,” not only for its winter arrival, but also for its plumage. A small slate-gray bird with a white belly, the junco resembles dark wintry skies over a snowy landscape. It is a species of sparrow and sports a lovely pink bill. White outer tail feathers are revealed when its tail is spread in flight, like hidden panels of fabric in a pleated skirt. Males tend to be dark slate-gray, while females are a lighter brown-gray.
Slate-colored Junco breed in Alaska, Canada and many of our northern states. They also breed in the mountainous regions of the Southeast. Breeding populations exist in Connecticut, but mainly in the northwest and northeast corners of the state, where mature conifer forests are found.
Autumn brings the snow birds southward into the rest of the United States. Those at Connecticut feeders have probably traveled here from Canada and northern New England. They migrate in flocks, usually returning to the same wintering areas every year. The juncos that visited your feeders last year will most likely return this winter. They seek out open areas, such as fields, parks and backyards that offer brushy and shrubby areas for cover. A dense conifer may serve as an overnight roost for the flock.
It is interesting to note that female juncos tend to winter farther south, so your backyard flock may have a higher proportion of males. A social hierarchy exists within the flock and this “pecking order” dictates that males dominate females and adults dominate juvenile birds. Watch for skirmishes beneath your feeders.
Juncos have also been observed clinging to the standing dead stems of black-eyed susan and purple coneflower as they eat from the seedheads. Allowing your garden to go to seed provides necessary food for juncos and other seedeaters, especially when snow covers seeds on the ground.