When I was a kid, we called Dark-Eyed Juncos “snow birds.” Until I started bird watching later in life, I thought that was their actual name. To us, seeing a snow bird was a sign. It meant that it was going to snow, leading to snowmen, snow forts, saucering down the side hill and a day off of school. I suspect this childhood joy may still be a little part of the reason that I still love these little birds today. Even today, when I know that birds don’t cause the weather, I still feel joy when I see the first of the juncos and their winter pals, the White-Throated Sparrows arrive in mid-fall.
While the more brightly colored birds of the back yard like American Goldfinches and Northern Cardinals, often get the most love, there is something about sparrows that is endearing. They are usually bold and energetic little things; They are often some of the first to come out of hiding after a hawk has left the immediate area and they get used to you so you can usually approach them fairly closely. They can be feisty too. I can usually tell when the neighborhood feral cat is around the brush pile because the little flock of sparrows sit at the top of it and scold him.
Sparrows in my yard are mostly seasonal because unlike most of the birds, I only feed them seasonally. Why? Because my favorite sparrows, the Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows are only found in my area from mid-October to mid-April. After that, they migrate back north into Canada.
Once I see the first of these birds arrive in the fall, I start broadcasting a few handfuls of white proso millet seed on the ground near the closest brush pile each day. The sparrows use the brush pile as cover and will venture out from it to grab some seed, retreating back to it when they feel threatened. They love this seed. If you put some out and a sparrow finds it, the next day there are bound to be more sparrows and then even more as the news spreads in subsequent days.
Sparrows are mostly ground feeding birds. While House Sparrows will also eat from feeders, in my yard, seeing other sparrows on one of the feeders is a rare event and even the House Sparrows seem to actually prefer seed on the ground. Occasionally one of the white-throats will pop up on a feeder to check things out and grab some seed and I’ve seen juncos do it a couple of times, but otherwise, the sparrows are on the ground, doing their funny little hop back dance to expose hidden seed. So while I normally don’t spread seed on the ground, for this I make an exception. I do try to not go too crazy with it though, so that most of what I toss out there is eaten in a day or two. (Seed on the ground, especially once it gets wet, can rot or get moldy.)
White proso millet (not red millet), while a favorite of sparrows, unfortunately also is welcome to some of the big flock birds of winter. Spreading millet, especially broadcasting over a wide area on the ground, can draw in the large mixed flocks of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, European Starlings and Brown-Headed Cowbirds. These flocks can be a problem when they descend on the yard because they tend to force out most or all of the other birds while they are there. They can eat a lot of seed too!
I’ve tried timing the scattering of the millet to early morning or late afternoon, thinking that will give the local birds a chance at the seed before a mixed flock arrives or after they leave. I’m not sure that it really helped. Maybe a little, but birds eat all day long so a visiting flock can still be a problem to the yard’s regulars.
I have also tried tossing the seed right into the brush pile, thinking that would favor the smaller birds over the large flocks but the European Starlings push their way in anyway and tossing seed into the brush pile only encourages squirrels to get into the piles looking for seed and that spooks the sparrows.
My most recent experiment is to try a different seed. I noticed that the Dark-Eyed Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows and the occasional Chipping Sparrow or Fox Sparrow would often be found poking around looking for seed under the nyjer feeders I have up for the American Goldfinches over in the side yard. So I’ve tried scattering some extra nyjer seed on the ground in the back yard a little separate from the other feeders. I’ve found that when there is nyjer to be found there, the Dark-Eyed Juncos will favor it. I’m not sure if they like it better than the millet or if they just find that there is less competition for the nyjer than for the millet in the other area.
I did try putting a bit of the nyjer in a ground feeder, thinking it would stay drier because of its gridded bottom that allows water to drain, but the birds completely ignored it, instead choosing seed on the ground next to it. It occurred to me though that maybe the feeder’s gridded bottom might bother them since it might possibly get in the way of their jump back method of exposing seed. It’s a theory anyway.
For the past couple of days I’ve taken things a little farther and tried sprinkling just nyjer and not millet in both areas. The Dark-Eyed Juncos continue to favor it and the White-Throated Sparrows seem quite content to eat the nyjer. The House Sparrows seem to be instead concentrating on picking up stray bits of sunflower hearts from under the Squirrel Buster Plus feeder or looking for the odd bit of millet still to be found. I’m not saying they won’t eat it, but it doesn’t seem to be something they are excited about.
If you spread millet on the ground in the winter for the sparrows and you are despairing with late winter mixed flocks that are pushing out the sparrows and other birds, get a little bit of nyjer to try and see if your local sparrows will go for it. Most of the other birds (except the finches) won’t be interested in it. While the big flocks may still come to get whatever is in your feeders, my theory is that having a lot of seed spread in a wide area on the ground is especially attractive to these large flocks because they can spread out and everyone in the flock gets to eat. Reduce the access area a little and it can make your yard just a little less appealing to them.
Sparrows, like other birds, also appreciate cover and water. We have several brush piles in the yard for cover and that tends to be where the sparrows hang out. They make forays out to eat seed and then fly back to the pile whenever they are spooked. We also have a number of birdbaths in the yard and two are heated for the winter months, one with the addition of a birdbath heater and for the other, I swap out the bowl for a heated bowl. While sparrows are drawn to the yard by the millet seed, the cover and water sweeten the deal for them.
Once the last of the White-Throated Sparrows and the Dark-Eyed Juncos leave the yard to head north in April, I stop offering millet completely. The House Sparrows leave too once the millet is gone and the mixed flocks tend to move on too. I don’t see more than an occasional sparrow in the yard throughout most of the spring and summer months. It is only when autumn rolls around again that the white-throats and the juncos reappear and bring their energy to the fall and winter yard again.
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