The dark-eyed junco is an abundant winter sparrow in Southwest Michigan, turning up at feeders, yards and hedgerows between October and April.

The dark-eyed junco has a wide distribution across North America which includes several races, formerly regarded as one species until 1973. The slate-colored race of the dark-eyed junco occurs in eastern North America and accounts for the vast majority of sightings in Southwest Michigan.

Occasionally the western, Oregon race turns up at local feeders, as was the case last week at the home of Lynn Basselman of Royalton Township. The Oregon race is identified by the rusty brown back and sides contracting with the gray head.

The two races commonly intermix, which is why they are considered sub-species as opposed to separate full-fledged species. This interbreeding causes variations of plumage, which is the case in both the Basselman picture and the photo of another Oregon race Junco taken by Joanie Gentry. The juncos in these photos have both Oregon and slate-colored race traits.

Common to all races of the dark-eyed junco are the white belly and white outer tail feathers. The tail feathers are distinctive when the bird is in flight.

In the summer months, the dark-eyed junco inhabits the coniferous forests and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests of Canada south to the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Juncos are ground nesters, and build the nests near the edges of the forest.

We see the dark-eyed junco during migration and winter months spanning from October through April. They are present but hard to find in May, and by early June through August they are generally absent from Southwest Michigan.

Readers should be listening around dusk and sunrise for great horned owls, which are currently gearing up for the 2020 nesting season. Listen for a series of deep hooting calls made by both the female and male. The female usually calls first, followed shortly by the male which sounds a bit lower in tone.

In the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, great horned owls may begin egg-laying as early as February. Preferred habitat of the great horned owl is woodlands interspersed with open areas such as farmland or subdivisions.

Jonathan Wuepper is an area naturalist. Report your sightings to him at wuepperj@gmail.com