Cooler weather in Santa Fe marks return of dark-eyed juncos

October 17, 2018 GMT

The arrival of dark-eyed juncos signals the start of cooler weather.

If you’re like me, you just recently pulled your jeans out of the closet for the first time in a while.

Just as we are settling in and getting used to shorter days and colder temperatures, so are our birds. The birds that will be with us for the winter are arriving. Besides the juniper titmouse, just a few of the birds that are checking out our backyards right now include: woodpeckers, nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, white-crowned sparrows and lots and lots of dark-eyed juncos.

Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most common winter feeder birds. Often called snowbirds, their return is associated with the start of winter weather. Six distinct populations of juncos have been combined into one, simply called the dark-eyed junco.

In Northern New Mexico, people are most likely to see the slate-colored junco, Oregon junco, and pink-sided junco. All six types of dark-eyed juncos are a bit different based on color and geographic range, but all are about 5½ inches long, have white bellies and dark backs, and all feed primarily on the ground or in low bushes.

Juncos fly from one low feeding area to another often flashing their showy white tail feathers along the way. According to Jim Carpenter, author of The Joy of Bird Feeding, “Juncos spend the entire winter in flocks of 6-20 birds, which return to the same ten-acre area each year.”

Watch for dark-eyed juncos hanging out in small flocks beneath feeders, especially if the birdseed mix has some white millet. Millet is kicked out to the ground by birds at the feeder looking for sunflower and other seeds.

It’s the perfect set-up for juncos who love white millet and love to eat at ground level. If you don’t want birds feeding on the ground, add a ground feeder to your bird feeding station and load it with a mix containing some white millet

Juncos and other ground feeders like white-crowned sparrows and towhees will be happy that you did. Juncos also eat insects, seeds from native plants and any nyjer/thistle that drops from a finch feeder. I’ve commonly seen them eat peanut pieces, sunflower chips, bark butter bits and have even seen them fly up to feast at a hanging seed and nut cylinder.

Birds often find a hospitable habitat, (a spot that offers food, water and plenty of cover), in the fall and stick around much of the winter. They may not hang out in your backyard all of the time, but it’s nice to get on their winter-feeding circuit. Providing a steady source of high fat, high calorie, high protein foods will attract a wide variety of birds and keep them coming all winter long.

Seed like black-oil sunflower and sunflower hearts (chips), peanut pieces, suet cakes, suet cylinders, seed and nut cylinders and bark butter bits (suet nuggets) are perfect foods for your cold weather visitors. High carbohydrate white proso millet is a good addition for your ground feeding birds. Make sure that the millet in your mix is white proso millet and not red millet or milo, which are not preferred by most birds but often used as filler seeds. A good seed mix contains mostly sunflower (or sunflower chips) and some white millet. Peanut pieces and bark butter bits are great high fat ingredients in any bird food blend, but they can also be added to a quality mix to spike up the fat, protein and calories.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.