Whether you’re an avid birder or someone who only notices nature on a casual basis, it’s hard not to break into a grin when you see a group of these small slate-colored birds flit, dart, and dance about your yard in winter.

“Harbinger of winter” is a term that has a more somber feel to it than its warm-weather counterpart – “harbinger of spring.” However, one marker of seasonal change – the arrival of dark-eyed juncos – is a well-known sign post of winter that makes everyone smile.

Whether you’re an avid birder or someone who only notices nature on a casual basis, it’s hard not to break into a grin when you see a group of these small slate-colored birds flit, dart, and dance about your yard in winter. Known as “snowbirds” because they appear here in Missouri and over much of the U.S. in winter, they were popular winter visitors long before singer Anne Murray vaulted the bird into national prominence with her 1970 hit “Snowbird.”

Dark-eyed juncos usually arrive in Missouri sometimes in November and stay until early or mid-spring. If not for their antics, it’d be relatively easy for the casual nature observer to overlook them: Their usual color pattern is dark to medium dark gray on the back, head and sides which is contrasted with a white belly and a few white outer tail feathers. There are several sub-species of the dark-eyed junco that appear across the U.S. The bulk of the bird’s courtship, breeding, nesting and brood-rearing activities occur in Canada and Alaska, although it should be noted some juncos are year-round residents of some mountainous areas of the U.S.

Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most common birds found in North America. Biologists estimate their population to be approximately 630 million. In summer, they breed and nest in coniferous and mixed forests.

When they come here in winter, they can be found in a variety of habitats ranging from rural areas to suburban yards and parks. One reason they’ve earned the term snowbird is because their return to these parts signals the return of cold, snowy weather. It’s also thought the “snowbird” nickname is attached to their color pattern: Their white-belly coloring underneath a dark gray back denotes a “gray skies above, snow below” scenario.

The further south you go, the more female juncos you’ll find in winter. Up to 70 percent of the juncos that winter in the southern half of the U.S. are females. Males tend to stay farther north in order to shorten their spring migration and, thus, gain the advantage of arriving first at prime breeding territories.

Here in Missouri, the majority of juncos are sighted at or near bird-feeding stations. Surveys show that juncos are sighted at more feeding stations than any other bird. The antics they’re known for have the appearance of frivolous play, but experts believe they’re actually social hierarchy actions. In some cases it may be males asserting dominance over females; in other cases it may be older birds asserting their authority over younger birds. Sometimes, two dominant birds will face each other, extend their necks and repeatedly raise and lower their bills as if in a dance, but these actions rarely end in a fight.

Seeds and insects form the bulk of a junco’s diet. They are primarily ground feeders. In this region in winter, they’re frequently seen on the ground under or near bird-feeding stations. Black oil sunflower seeds, millet, cracked corn, and safflower seeds are among the food items that can be scattered on the ground to attract juncos. They will also be seen scratching in leaf litter and pine needles for seeds and insects. A source of fresh, clean water offered at or near ground level should also be part of any purposeful efforts to attract juncos.

People interested in watching for juncos and other birds seen in this area at this time of year should plan to attend the ”Birds – A Kickoff to Your Big Year” program on Feb. 1 at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Springfield Conservation Nature Center. This free event will be 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. This program will help people learn how to identify birds, how to attract them to backyards and will also encourage families to keep track of the different species of birds they see. No registration is required for this event, which is for all ages. More information can be found by calling 417-888-4237.

More information about juncos and other birds that can be found in Missouri in winter, and at other times of year, can be found at mdc.mo.gov

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.