Last Updated on September 11, 2022 by Nancie
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 bit 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. Here is what I do in my yard to make sparrows welcome during the winter.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
In This Post:
Why I Love Sparrows
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. Often some of the first to come out of hiding after a hawk has left the immediate area, they get used to you so you can usually approach them fairly closely.
They can be feisty too. I can usually tell when a neighborhood cat is around the brush pile. The little flock of sparrows sit at the top and scold him.
Sparrows in my yard are mostly seasonal because unlike most birds, I only feed them seasonally. Why? Because my favorite sparrows, 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 where they breed.
Sparrows Eat Seed on the Ground
While House Sparrows and some Chipping Sparrows will also eat from feeders, most sparrows are mostly ground feeding birds. In my yard, seeing other sparrows on one of the feeders is a rare event. And even the Chipping and House Sparrows seem to prefer seed on the ground. Occasionally a white-throat will pop up on a feeder to check things out and grab some seed. I’ve seen juncos do it a couple of times over the years.
But otherwise, 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. Most of what I toss out there is eaten within a day. (Seed on the ground, especially once it gets wet, can rot or get moldy.) I also make a point not to spread seed right next to the house so as not to draw field mice close to the house.
Attract Sparrows With Millet
Once I see the first of these birds arrive in the fall, I broadcast a few handfuls of white proso millet seed on the ground near the closest brush pile or other cover each day. The sparrows venture out from cover to grab some seed, retreating back when they feel threatened. (2020: I’ve gotten rid of my closer brush piles to reduce the House Sparrow visits. The first White-Throat of the year appeared on 10/16 and used the black raspberry bushes for quick cover.)
Millet is a seed sparrows love. 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.
But Millet Attracts Other Flock Birds Too
White Proso millet, while a favorite of sparrows, unfortunately also is also welcome to some problem birds. 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. To me, these flocks can be a problem when they descend on the yard. They tend to force out most or all of the other birds while they are there and 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 a brush pile, thinking that would favor smaller birds over the large flocks. But 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, spooking the sparrows who like to hang out there.
Attract Sparrows by Feeding Nyjer
My most recent experiment is to try a different seed. I noticed that Dark-Eyed Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows and the occasional Chipping or Fox Sparrow are often found under the goldfinches’ nyjer feeders in the side yard.
So I tried scattering some extra nyjer on the ground in the back yard away from the feeders. When there is nyjer there, Dark-Eyed Juncos favor it. I’m not sure if they like it better than millet or if there is just less competition for the nyjer.
I tried putting a bit of nyjer in a ground feeder, thinking it would stay drier because of its grid bottom that allows water to drain. But they completely ignored it, choosing seed on the ground next to it instead. I suspect that the feeder’s grid bottom gets in the way of their jump back method of exposing seed. It’s a theory anyway.
Offering Nyjer Instead of Millet
I’ve took things a little farther and tried sprinkling only nyjer and not millet in both areas. Dark-Eyed Juncos continue to favor it and White-Throated Sparrows seem quite content to eat it too.
House Sparrows seem to instead concentrate on stray bits of sunflower hearts under the feeders or the odd bit of millet still to be found. I’m not saying they won’t eat nyjer, but it doesn’t seem to be something they are excited about.
If you spread millet on the ground or the sparrows and you are despairing with late winter mixed flocks pushing out sparrows and other birds, get a little bit of nyjer. See if your local sparrows will go for it. Most other birds (except finches and maybe Mourning Doves) won’t be interested.
The big flocks may still come to get whatever is in your feeders. But my theory is that having a lot of seed spread widely on the ground is especially attractive to large flocks because they can spread out and the whole flock gets to eat. Reduce the access area a little and it can make your yard a little less appealing to them.
Sparrows Love Cover & Water
Sparrows, like other birds, also appreciate cover and water. We have several brush piles in the yard and some bramble areas that provide cover and that tends to be where the sparrows hang out. They make forays out to eat seed and then fly back to cover whenever they are spooked. (Note: Conversely, if you need to get House Sparrows OUT of your yard, getting rid of close cover can help tremendously. Our brush piles are now in the back corner of the yard instead of right near the feeders.)
We also have a number of birdbaths. Two are heated for the winter, one with the addition of a birdbath de-icer. For the other, I swap out the regular bowl for a heated bowl. While sparrows are drawn to the yard by millet, the cover and water sweetens the deal for them.
Stopping Seed on the Ground in the Spring
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 and/or nyjer on the ground completely. Well, I will sometimes delay things if Chipping Sparrows show up and are eating seed on the ground after the winter sparrows leave. Any House Sparrows leave too once the millet is gone.
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.
Learn More About Sparrows
- White-Throated Sparrow on All About Birds
- Dark-Eyed Junco on All About Birds
- Chipping Sparrow on All About Birds
- Song Sparrow on All About Birds
- Fox Sparrow on All About Birds
- House Sparrow on All About Birds
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy Sparrows Course
- How Juncos Changed Their Migration, Behavior, and Plumage in a Matter of Decades (Cornell All About Birds online article.)
- Build Brush Piles For Birds
- Deterring House Sparrows
- My DIY House Sparrow Halo
- Why Birds Changed Their Tune During the Pandemic (Specifically White Crowned Sparrows) Atlas Obscura
Also see my posts on Maryland Backyard Birds and How to Feed Ground-Feeding Birds in the Snow.
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9 thoughts on “Attracting White-Throats, Juncos & Other Sparrows”
I love the these little birds and have started offering millet like you described. It’s cheap and a little goes a long way. I find it doesn’t get eaten quickly in my feeders but disappears on the ground. Thanks for your post.
Hi Tim, I love them too. Glad you enjoyed the post. Nancie
Help! I live in Toronto and have tried to identify the type of junco eating my burning bush berries but have not been able to despite going through thousands of pictures. They hover like a hummingbird and have that plump rounded look with the distinctive flight flutter and the outer white tail feathers when in flight. The clear difference from the usual grey winter juncos that I know well is that these do not have a grey throat. The white or cream coloured belly extends all the way up the throat so that only the head is dark. Most juncos I know and that appear with the first snow have the dark throat that extends halfway down the belly.
Hi Yvon, Wow! Interesting. The first thing that comes to mind is that Dark-Eyed Juncos can vary A LOT in color variation, usually based on geography. So one possibility is that the juncos you are seeing usually hang out in a different part of the country. Another possibility is that you are seeing a leucistic Dark-eyed Junco but it sounds like you are seeing more than one so that possibility seems unlikely. Have you looked at pictures of different junco colorings? All About Birds has a slideshow of different juncos on their site: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id If you look toward the bottom of the page, there is a paragraph about the “Regional Differences.” There is also a similar Yellow-Eyed Junco that has a paler chest and throat, but your location is wrong for them.
In my yard, I’ve never seen Dark-Eyed Juncos eating berries, although they apparently will eat them. I’m not sure that I’ve seen them hover like you describe, but in my yard they are more typically eating seeds off the ground. I know it can be hard to judge size, but are they sparrow sized like a junco or could they be smaller? Any chance they might be a late fall warbler?
Absolutely wonderful post! My mom started a bird feeder a couple summers ago (we’re in Northern Ontario, just north of Sault Ste. Marie near Lake Superior so we get your winter birds). One of our favourite birds is the White-Throat because of their distinct song. It’s our favourite thing to hear come spring.
I googled how to attract them to the feeder because we rarely see them (but boy can we hear them!). Reading your post with what you’ve tried, what works, unintended results was wonderful. Especially the beginning, talking about how you always called juncos snowbirds. I think that’s a very common, relatable story and it made me smile and chuckle a few times.
I’ve sent this link to my mom and will be watching for more posts simply for the fact that I love reading them. After I scour the rest of your posts, of course haha.
Thank you for this blog!
Canadian fellow birder,
Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. White-Throats are one of our favorites too, although we listen for them here in the fall rather than the spring. I’m always a little sad when first the juncos and then the white-throats disappear. I know they will be back but the yard always seems a little emptier when they are gone. The last of our white-throats left our yard sometime last week so they are on their way up to you!
I know exactly what you mean. Just, in reverse up here lol. The big one is when the Canada geese start their V formations. A lot of people get depressed because it means winter is coming and it’s a depressing time for most people. Me, on the other hand, I adore Autumn. It’s my favourite season. Especially up here with all the amazing colours, and that SMELL. There’s nothing like it. My favourite is when all the colours are at their peak and there’s fog in the mornings. It’s just so peaceful.
Anyway. Sorry to hear your yard feels empty now, but I promise we’ll take good care of them! Mum’s been keeping her feeders full (she has hummingbirds as well), and she’s got a rather large population now. The word has spread, so her garden is a massive layover spot for migratory birds now. It’s been amazing seeing it happen. So many new species this year. We get excited every time we see a new bird that hasn’t been there before. Then she calls her mom (who lives about 45 minutes south east of her and has had birdfeeders for decades) and they compare notes. With the difference in elevation between the two, my grandmother gets birds Mum doesn’t and vice versa. So it’s almost like a competition lol.
I imagine that by the time I saw this reply, your White-Throats are already here! They will certainly be well fed!
I like the change of seasons too. I would miss it if I lived somewhere without that change. Winter can be grey and seem long but it does make you appreciate spring and seeing everything turn green again. Here in Maryland, with temps getting warmer than in the past, sometimes it feels like we have two seasons: Winter and Summer with tiny little bits of spring and autumn in between. But autumn and spring are beautiful and very interesting months in the yard. Regardless of the temperature, in spring and fall, you never know what migrating bird might unexpectedly show up for a quick visit. It’s so great that you and your mom and her mom are all bird watching and can share experiences and bird sightings. So fun!
Apologies for the late response. Work has been insane (I work with my brother in law who owns a pool/hot tub/fireplace business and this is our busy season. Plus we just moved locations in April, so we’re all kinda going nuts lol).
Same! I need seasons. Especially Autumn. The northern Great Lakes area is just absolutely stunning, no matter what time of year. We have a local tour train that has their Autumn season tickets sold out by June. I highly recommend a visit if you ever have the opportunity to travel and want to see some of our friends in their summer clothes!
Yeah, climate change is everywhere now. There was a time we didn’t need air conditioners where I live now. These days? Everyone has one. I’ve suffered heat stroke twice in the last few years because of the heat.
And the weather patterns are so erraticately!! The storms are intense, the temps fluctuating like crazy, very strange for this area. I’ve always been fascinated by the weather, so I’m always looking at the satellite and I’ve been seeing some pretty intense storms all along the eastern seaboard. It makes me wonder how the wildlife is adapting. I’ve noticed a lot of critters in our area that we never had before with the general climates becoming more like southern Ontario up here.
Mum told me a couple weeks ago she has a bird at her feeder that she’s never seen in her area before. I wish I could remember what it was. I’ll ask her next time I talk to her and let you know. But that’s a perfect example of what you said about unexpected visitors during migration seasons!
Hope you’re well!