Dark-eyed Junco: Bird of the Month, December 2017

As I watch birds in Eliza Howell Park throughout the year, I often realize that one species is dominating my attention at a particular time. I think of this species as the “bird of the month.” There are different ways of coming to the forefront of my awareness – by, for example, being the most common or most active species at that period of time or by being a migrant that arrives right “on schedule” or by providing vibrant color in the gray of winter.

My Eliza Howell December bird of the month in 2017 is the Dark-eyed Junco. Often referred to as the “snowbird,” the junco this year has been particularly visible and active as the first snows arrived.


                              Photo by Margaret Weber

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the North (from northern Michigan through Canada) and migrate south throughout most of the U.S. for the winter. In Detroit, they usually arrive around the first week in October and depart sometime in April. They spend as much of the year here, in their “southern” winter home, as they do further north.

As small ground birds, juncos might not be very visible were it not for the white tail feathers that flash when they fly. Juncos are often in small flocks in the winter and this December the Eliza Howell flock seems to be both more visible and larger than usual. It is often the first bird species I see when I exit the car and the foraging group has sometimes been more than 20 individuals.

My regular Eliza Howell parking spot in the winter is near a large oak tree and my regular walk takes me through a large wild flower patch near the edge of the woods. As seed eaters, juncos forage under the tree by the edge of the road and among the flowers (on or under the seed bearing stalks). It is great to be treated to these lovely and lively birds on my arrival.


Since they spend much of their time on the ground in the “weeds,” it is easy to miss them. Occasionally, as in the picture below, I am able to see one or two in the midst of the flower stalks. More often, I only see them when they fly up at my approach.


Juncos hop rather than walk. Note their tracks.


Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Black-capped Chickadees are also candidates for “bird of the month” in December. But this year, the selection of this bird watcher is the Dark-eyed Junco. There seems to be nothing more fitting for December snows than the snowbird!

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