The dark-eyed junco is a common spring and fall migrant throughout Minnesota, and a common winter visitor in the southern part of the state.
During the summer, some nest in northern St. Louis and Lake counties and Lake of the Woods County. These birds, 5½ inches long, are at their peak of migration now.
They migrate at night at low altitudes, the flocks up to about a hundred individuals.
Other birds, including American tree sparrows and fox sparrows, might accompany them as they travel from their coniferous forest nesting grounds of Canada and extreme northern Minnesota to the southern part of the state and as far as the Gulf of Mexico. There they’ll spend the winter in city parks and suburbs as well as in the countryside.
Here in southern Minnesota, we often call dark-eyed juncos snowbirds because soon after they arrive we expect our first snowfall.
The dark-eyed junco is a medium-sized sparrow with dark gray plumage on its head, chest and upper parts that contrasts with the white belly and their white outer tail feathers.
Its eyes are dark and the bill a light pink. Females are a much lighter gray and tend to look tan-brown above.
We see more of the dark-colored males than the lighter females in the winter in southern Minnesota; females are more common in the southern states.
Males risk harsh winters in the northern states in order to get a head start on the spring journey back to their breeding grounds to stake out territories.
At our feeding station in Waconia, juncos relish the cracked corn and millet seeds we scatter on the ground. With a potential life span of over 10 years, it’s likely that the junco under your feeder has spent previous winters as your backyard guest.
Jim Gilbert’s observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.