Dark-eyed Juncos

Dark-eyed juncos are a well-known winter bird in the upper Midwest, and one of the most abundant birds of the non-breeding season.  Perhaps their attractive dark blue, or “slate-colored” plumage makes them a welcome sight at your winter bird feeders.  They prefer to eat from the ground, and in winter they will forage for grass seeds or insects from snow-free patches of ground along roadsides, or scrounge seeds knocked from backyard feeders.  Living in Canada during the summer, they disperse throughout the United States in winter.  They arrive in Wisconsin around November, and are usually the most abundant bird in our Christmas Bird Counts.

  Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Maddie Dumas

Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Maddie Dumas

This year, of the 1,800 teams that participated in the North American Christmas Bird Count (CBC), 1,600 teams found slate-colored dark-eyed juncos.  The team with the highest number of slate-colored dark-eyed juncos was Pardeeville, WI!  The second place team, from Pennsylvania, found 3,501 juncos.  In 18 states, 2 Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia, there were 97 counts that found over 1,000 juncos.  Sixteen of these 97 high counts occurred in Wisconsin, but they ranged from the west coast, California and Washington, to the Midwest, Kansas and Oklahoma, to the east coast Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Usually the more participants, the more birds, so National Audubon Society also totals birds per party hour.  The top five teams in juncos per party hour were all from Wisconsin.  Blanchardville (3,289; 100 per party hour), Richland Center (2,706; 85 per party hour), Bridgeport (2,530; 79 per party hour); Pardeeville (4,688; 76 per party hour), and Brodhead (2,666; 73 per party hour).

Dave Willard, a veteran birder who grew up in Madison led the Blanchadville count.  Willard mentioned that juncos were extremely abundant during the Blanchardville CBC on December 19th.  While the team of 13 worked 33 party hours and ended up with an impressive 3,289 juncos, it is likely that with more party members, many more birds could have been counted.  A similar observation was made by Mark, Sue, Maddie and their fellow teammates in the Pardeeville CBC.  We all remarked on the large number of juncos found along roadsides, however, it was not until the results were tabulated that we learned of the record high count.  The Pardeeville CBC, coordinated by Paul and Glenna Schwalbe, had 21 counters, and worked for 62 party hours.

  Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

In contrast, National Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) that ran from February 17-20th told a very different story about the distribution of dark-eyed juncos in Wisconsin.  The unusually warm weather the upper Midwest has been experiencing for the last week has led to fewer birds at feeders, and fewer dark-eyed juncos in general.  At the Kampen Road residence, the February 17th GBBC turned up six juncos in the yard, with an additional six more in the food plot.  The Prairie Lane residence GBBC on February 20th counted no juncos at all.  Results are still being reported for the GBBC, but distribution maps show the largest concentrations of slate-colored dark-eyed juncos along the northeastern coast from northern North Carolina up through New England, and around the southern tip of Lake Michigan near the Chicago area, with scattered populations throughout the U.S., particularly around larger cities.  The southernmost junco reported was from Austin, TX, and the northernmost was found in southern Alaska.  It will be interesting to continue to compare the results of the 2016 CBC, with the 2017 GBBC, to see how the numbers of juncos in Wisconsin shift in this two-month period in the winter, and to consider how unusual winter weather affects our winter birds.  Meanwhile, enjoy the juncos while they are here!

Written by Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers & Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward