Juncos: welcome winter guests

When Dark-eyed Juncos return to our yard in the fall, we know that winter isn’t far behind. They spend spring and summer further north where they breed in Boreal forests. When Juncos move south in winter, they use a wider variety of habitats, like our gardens. In 2019, our first winter guests arrived at the end of October.

A male Junco sitting in our Basswood tree waiting for a turn at the bird feeder. (December 6, 2019)
A lighter female Junco sitting in the Birch tree closer to the house. This bird was jumping up to pluck seeds off of the dangling catkins. (November 17, 2019)

The first few Juncos that arrived in the fall were later to be joined by others. This flock of Juncos will hang out together all winter. When we go outside, they pop into the cedar hedge, or fly to the back hedgerow for safety. They aren’t as fearful as some other birds, so they soon re-emerge, along with cheerful Chickadees, once we stay still.

Polar bear dippers

We first spotted the Juncos at our stream. Like other sparrows, they love to bathe. They don’t mind the cold water either. Birds continue to bathe in the stream and pond whenever temperatures hover around 0°C. Once it gets colder than that, they only use the pond for drinking water.

One of our first Junco guests hopping around the stream to find the perfect place for a bath. (October 26, 2019)
Like other sparrows, Juncos don’t mind the cold water and are frequent, vigorous bathers. (November 12, 2019)
Polar bear swim, Junco-style. (November 12, 2019)

Entertaining foragers

While Juncos eat insects during breeding season, they mostly eat seeds in the winter. For years, they have been regulars at our feeders.

Now that I’m growing native plants, and leaving the seed heads standing throughout the winter, Juncos are eating seeds right off of the plants. They are entertaining to watch, whether they’re foraging on plants or on the ground. So far, their favourite natural seed sources have been Anise Hyssop, Little Bluestem, and different kinds of asters close to the house. It’s hard see exactly what they’re eating in the meadow and hedgerow.

It’s a good thing that Juncos and Goldfinches like Anise Hyssop seeds because this plant can self-seed prolifically. The year after I planted it, I had so many seedlings that I wondered if I had made a mistake. Anise Hyssop has so many good qualities though: seedlings are easy to pull, it is long-blooming, it provides design structure, and the bumblebees and butterflies really enjoy the flowers. Now that birds are eating lots of Anise Hyssop seeds, it is no longer a nuisance self-seeder.

The silhouette of a Junco (top right) eating Anise Hyssop seeds in the mini-meadow. (November 17, 2019)

Like Goldfinches, Juncos often climb up, or along, stems to reach seeds.

Here an Anise Hyssop stem bends under this Junco’s weight (all 19 grams of it).
If you look closely, you can see seed chaff in the Junco’s beak. (November 13, 2019)
Then the Junco hopped down to eat seeds it had knocked down into the snow. The miniscule, black specks are the seeds it works so hard for. They must be very tasty to go through so much trouble, especially since the feeder nearby is full of sunflower seeds. (November 13, 2019)

When Juncos search for seeds on the ground, they do little backward hops to uncover them beneath snow, soil, or leaf debris. It’s fun to watch. In the book Garden Birds of North America (at Ottawa Public Library), author George H. Harrison describes this Junco behaviour so eloquently that I have to share it with you:

“To uncover the food, they perform a jaunty foraging dance by shuffling backwards with both feet. The more snow on the ground, the more shuffling they must do. It is amusing to watch a flock of juncos all dancing the junco shuffle at once.”

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This Dark-eye Junco Youtube video, by Dominique Lalonde Films Nature, shows this entertaining Junco foraging behaviour.

Now that the natural seed sources are depleted in the backyard, we’re seeing Juncos in the front garden. They’re eating Anise Hyssop seeds again, as well as Brown-eyed Susans.

We enjoy watching the Juncos while we can because once the weather warms up, they’ll be gone again.

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