They're back! My email box is bulging with notes this week announcing the return of dark-eyed juncos, the quintessential harbinger of winter. Call them juncos or snowbirds, their return means temperatures are dropping and snow will soon fly.
And they're right on time. They return each year in October and stay the winter. Their return north in April is a reliable sign that winter's really over. Juncos define the onset of winter, and their departure is April is good news for many observant nature watchers.
Dark-eyed juncos breed in northern forests all the way to the tundra. They find our temperate winters down right balmy. Permanent populations also live at higher elevations throughout the Appalachian Mountains. They nest in rhododendron thickets.
Juncos are among the easiest feeder birds to identify. The male's slate gray head, neck, back and upper breast contrast sharply with its snow-white belly and lower breast. In flight, white outer tail feathers flash conspicuously. Add a distinctly pink bill, and he's complete. Females are patterned similarly, but their dark parts are more brownish-gray.
This "slate-colored" dark-eyed junco is just one of five forms that occur across North America. Far western "Oregon" juncos wear a black hood that contrasts with a rusty back. The "white-winged" form of the Black Hills has two white wing bars and more white on the tail. The southern Rockies' "gray-headed" form has a bright rusty back. And the "pink-sided" form of the northern Rockies has broad pink sides. Hybrids of some of these forms occur, so watch for variations in the "slate-colored" form that occurs throughout the East.
According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch, juncos are usually seen at more feeders across the continent than any other species. They prefer white millet, cracked corn, and black-oil sunflower seeds scattered on the ground or on low platform feeders.
A few years ago I saw two juncos on an elevated finch tube eating nyjer seeds -- a first after more than 20 years of watching backyard feeder birds.
Winter flocks of juncos number 10 to 30 individuals. If you watch the juncos that come to your yard carefully, you'll notice two things.