It is days like today, when it is cold and somewhat miserable, that I welcome and cherish old friends. I haven’t seen them for months since they live far to the north in the boreal forest for most of the year. But every year in late October they come back to spend some time here. I’m speaking about my juncos. More correctly called the Dark-eyed Junco, these beautiful sparrows are strikingly black and white from head to toe. And they’re tough little birds for they will stay all winter despite the worst weather they might face. Life is difficult for these birds as they seem to favour the harsher environments and weather, but their life expectancy is still between three and eleven years – not bad for a small bird!
Mostly silent at this time of year, they only utter a soft twittery sound when they fly, but come spring they become quite musical producing a lovely staccato trill. Primarily ground feeders, they will readily come to feeders and are very tolerant of our presence. They like the smaller seeds so generally don’t seek out sunflower seeds, but instead favour crushed corn and millet; they will also eat suet if available. Feeding in the winter usually involves them hopping about nervously on the ground, searching out tiny morsels of food. They can be quite territorial in the winter and will drive other juncos and sparrows away from their tiny bit of land. The birds that arrive earliest in the fall, usually adults, will defend their small seed patch against all others. That said, we often encounter fairly large flocks of juncos and other sparrows in close proximity, but always the private space around each bird is maintained.
Their scientific name (Junco hyemalis) is derived from the Latin meaning reed bird of winter. I presume this arises from the fact they often cling to tall seed bearing plants to feed and come here when it is cold. So let’s explore their lives a bit when they’re not here in Durham sharing time with us.
In mid to late April and early May, they leave Durham Region and head north to the boreal forests of Canada to breed on the Canadian Shield, virtually from coast to coast. While their winter food is primarily seed focused, during the breeding season, they need more protein so switch to a diet that comprises of insects, such as caterpillars, beetles, ants, flies and wasps. In the summer the feeding style is different than in the winter as they are looking for live prey, so must pursue and catch each morsel. They maintain larger distances between individual birds as they defend their nesting territories, so the conflicts between individuals are greatly reduced. Males are very territorial in the breeding season and aggressively chase intruders away with ‘attack’ flights, loud vocalizations and the flashing of their tail feathers. The male is very attentive to the female and ardently courts her with song, posturing and a proud display of his fine white tail feathers.
The nesting process is dominated by the female who chooses the nest site and builds the nest in three to seven days, usually in a small depression on the ground but sometimes in small trees and shrubs. A variety of materials will be used in the nest’s construction, including small twigs, conifer needles, grasses, leaves, mosses, rootlets and animal hair, some of which are supplied by the males. She will lay three to six eggs, which she will incubate for about two weeks. Then the work begins since for the next two weeks the young demand increasingly more attention and food. Both parents feed the young throughout this period. Once they fledge, she usually nests again and then the second family might stay together for some time and may even migrate as a loose family group.
Right now outside my window about 25 of them are feverishly feeding on the seed I place for them – their goal to survive, but inadvertently give me joy all winter long!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.