The Junco Nest

Finding nests is one of those magical spring events that can sometimes lead to a sad ending. All kinds of things can go wrong in this vulnerable bird activity. But fear not: this story has a happy ending.

Juncos are sparrows, and common across North America. Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are migrants in parts of the continent, and year-round residents in other parts. Where I live in Northern California, we have both: residents and migrants. The two races look a little different, but at any rate, we have a healthy resident population who are currently nesting. (The migrants left several weeks ago.)

More info: All About Birds Dark-eyed Junco

They are ground birds, with a diet primarily of seeds, and are ground nesters.

You can imagine what kind of dangers lurk for a ground nest on a rural mountain property — snakes, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and skunks frequently roam our hills and forest.

Last autumn there were wild amaryllis flowers, aka Naked Ladies (Amaryllis Belladonna), growing outside our kitchen sink window. They are bright pink flowers with a bubblegum scent. They grow everywhere, like weeds; found these (below) beside a trail in a park. You can see a mass of their dead leaves at the base of the flowers.

Every spring around April, after the flowers outside our kitchen window are long gone, the leaves dry out and turn yellow and we cut them back.

Except this year something different happened.

While the leaves were still green, a junco began hopping around underneath the amaryllis leaves, displaying unusual behavior. We recognized it as nesting behavior and realized the female was building a nest under there.

Slowly the amaryllis leaves began to dry out, but there was still enough foliage for completely camouflaging the nest.

About a week after that, there was more progress. Both the male and female were stealthily and industriously coming in with a worm or insect clamped in their bills. They hopped underneath the leaves, vanished for a second, then flew out; repeating this activity dozens of times in a day.

Babies!

This little corner of our property is not commonly visited by humans. We use it as a shortcut, but visitors don’t…well not human visitors. It’s on a hillside with giant boulders, as you can see in this photo, and not conducive to human walking. Can you see the amaryllis leaves in the middle of the photo? Also, take note of the external pipe on the right side of the photo.

Plenty of wildlife walk through here. After 20 years at the kitchen sink, I have seen so much activity in this little corner of the world. Sure makes doing dishes fun.

This particular nest, however, was worrisome from the start. The ground nesters, in my humble opinion, are asking for trouble.

From the critter cam we know of one skunk individual who regularly waddled through here in February and March. It was part of his or her nightly routine. Suppose that skunk would like a nice, delicious midnight snack.

Now that the nest was there and a new family was on the way, the risks seemed high. I hoped the skunk had found a new routine.

Years ago this gopher snake came through. I guess it found the pipe a fun challenge. But–yikes–a gopher snake so cheeky to wrap around a household pipe must be a very successful hunter.

We commonly have rattlesnakes here too. This time of year they’re just coming out of underground hibernation. Too sad if they were to enjoy some fresh breakfast eggs.

Days went by and the feeding continued, feverishly. Apparently they still had the nestlings.

Although it was tempting to lift the leaves to investigate, we never did.

Not a good idea. Didn’t want to traumatize any of these birds. The parents were working so hard on constantly keeping their new brood fed. And the nestlings were no doubt tiny and extremely fragile.

We waited until the feeding was done and all the birds were gone. That was last week.

We never saw one baby bird, but we were sure they were under there due to all the feeding activity.

Then this past Monday, after a week of nest dormancy, we looked into the nest.

Gingerly pushing away the dead leaves, we found this beautiful grassy nest in a small depression in the ground.

They typically lay 3-5 eggs, and apparently it was a successful brood because the nest was empty except for some fecal sacs.

Whew. It could’ve turned out differently, and we certainly have witnessed plenty of unsuccessful broods. But what a relief and complete joy to know there are several new baby juncos making their way in this world.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

98 thoughts on “The Junco Nest

    • You know critter adventures well, Timothy, so I am glad I could share a fun one with you today. Glad you liked the coyote and gopher snake. Warm thanks for your visit, always a treat.

  1. Hi Jet, I thoroughly enjoyed getting immersed in your story of the Junco’s nest building and its environs. Your kitchen window frames an exciting peek into nature’s dramas. Great post and photos. 😀

    • I am pleased and smiling, Jane, that you enjoyed the junco nest story. With your eye and photographic skills, you know well the glory of nature and the beauty of the subtleties that it brings us. My warmest thanks.

  2. Love juncos. We just had a talk at Linnaean Society of NY on coyotes. It was very interesting. They post the Zoom recordings in case you can find the time. You can attend for free next fall.

    • Juncos are loveable, and I’m glad you love them, Sherry. I always appreciate hearing about your beloved Linnaean Society, thanks so much for opening me up to it. Cheers my friend.

  3. The juncos certainly do make a beautiful nest, and I’m glad that this brood made it out alive. I once studied a local junco nest constructed underneath some ferns & it was doing pretty well until some cowbird found it & laid its own egg there. Ah well, here’s to your latest– thanks & be well!

    • Yes, we spend enough time outdoors and we see all kinds of things happen to the bird nests, don’t we Walt. I appreciated hearing about the cowbird debacle with the junco nest you found. I was so glad this one was a success, and happy to share it. Thanks very much for your thoughtful response and words today, Walt.

    • I really appreciate hearing about your reading of the junco nest post, Janet, it’s something every writer clings to for inspiration. My warmest thanks for your visit and comment today, and sending lots of love your way.

  4. Juncos are our favorite backyard residents. We recently discovered that there is a junco nest in a corner of our hanging fuchsia planter. We’re holding our breath in hopes that no hawks or other predators notice it there. We’re also trying to water the planter carefully from the opposite side so it will stay lush and alive for the the nesters, though we do get scolded whenever we come near. We’re feeling a bit like expectant grandparents.

    • Great fun to hear about your junco nest in the fuchsia planter, Donna. I think it’s so sweet that you’re watering the plant carefully and nurturing the new family. I hope you and the junco parents have resounding success. Thanks very much.

  5. What a fabulous and exciting story Jet. What a beautiful nest too. I also love the Amaryllis- it is fascinating that they drop their leaves like that. That snake on the pipe is a real stunner as well, even if it meant more nerves being racked for the juncos. A really lovely post. Thank you 😊

    • My warmest thanks for your lovely visit today, Alastair. It has been great fun watching the junco family evolve, and equally as fun to tell the story. Just now I was having a cup of tea on the back deck and I saw one of the juveniles pestering its parent for food under our feeder. Wonderful to have you stop by, thank you.

    • Hi Willy, always fun to talk to you. That snake on the pipe was so silent, we never would’ve known it was there except that it’s out that window above the kitchen sink where I spend a lot of pondering and observing hours. Thanks very much and cheers to you.

  6. Your prose was riveting, Jet. Even though you stated at the start that this story had a happy ending, I think I was holding my breath as I read about all of the potential threats to the junco babies. (The coyote shot was really cool and the snake photo was amazing–kudos to Athena.) The dénouement was particularly effective when the dead leaves were pushed to the side, revealing the signs of new life in the beautiful little nest. The world can be so hostile to little creatures like this that it is amazing when they manage to survive those early vulnerable days.

    • Thanks so very much for your thoughtful reading and appreciation of the junco story today, Mike. Sometimes we don’t realize how invested we become in the lives of our wild creatures, until something like a nest full of nestlings comes along. What thrills me about your comment here is that you understood each of the aspects that I applied to the writing. Thanks so very much for your wonderful comment, and also for our earlier exchange this morning regarding the butterfly tails. This weekend I am going to use my binoculars to look at the small butterflies. We seem to be having an emergence of several species lately, and I want to see if any of them have tails, now that you have enlightened me. Cheers, my friend, and many thanks and smiles.

    • Yes, those juncos really are master nest makers, Jan, you said it. I was girding myself to find dead babies, and instead we were pleasantly surprised at this tidy swirl of grass. My warm thanks for your visit and words.

  7. Either those juncos are brave or have no common sense. I wonder what the ratio of success is? I’m with you in not thinking a nest on the ground is a wise idea. Especially if a bird can fly? Call me crazy but i think those wee juncos were a lucky lot. Yay for spring and happy endings.

    • I’m with you, Sue — yay for spring and yay for happy endings. I so enjoyed your visit and always appreciate your fun and thoughtful comments, my friend. I hope you and Dave have a fun weekend.

  8. What an enthralling story – it was good to have the happy ending confirmed at the start! – and how amazing that this particular nest and occupants survived so much potential peril. Phew!
    Thanks for sharing this lovely tale from your homestead, really enjoyed it!

    • It is never a dull moment up here on our mountain, pc, and really fun to share the successful story of the junco nest. We just found five finch eggs in a nest box at our front door, and four little swallow eggs in a nest box. Baby birds everywhere and it’s really so fun. I enjoyed your comment so very much, and hope you and Mrs. pc and Scout have a weekend of wonder.

    • As we “speak,” Donna, the new juvenile juncos are outside underneath our feeder pestering their parents to be fed. I’m delighted you found the story exciting, and really appreciate you saying so. Sending big smiles your way.

  9. Another fascinating post, Jet. Juncos are so attractive. Have your read “Peregrine Spring?” It’s not about juncos but about a master falconer and her birds. Really interesting. Love that snake shot, BTW. 🙂

    janet

    • Thanks so much for your kind words and appreciation of the junco nest post today, Janet. I have not read “Peregrine Spring” but it sounds like it would be interesting. I’m almost done with the book I’m reading (Letters between Abigail and John Adams) and just might get my Kindle fired up for the falconer. Thank you very much.

  10. Ahhh, the restraint needed in order not to disturb that nest must have been phenomenal! I still sit on the back steps now and then hoping to catch the chickadees hopefully feeding some youngsters, but the patience is a bit thin. As compensation we get to watch the more daring violet-green swallows popping in and out with their beaks full of bugs! We’re still waiting for the arrival of the quail babies. They are too adorable when they’re tiny, but they grow fast. No time to waste….

    Nice to see your spring arrivals. There seem to be less Juncos in our area this year. We try to keep some areas that supply room for ground nesters… blackberry and other thickets might seem messy to some, but the birds need places to feel a bit safer. Our Doug Squirrel often has my heart in my throat as it attacks the chipmunks and jays and quail. Nasty, nasty Doug Squirrel. 🥴

    • You and I have such similar backyards, Gunta. It’s always a pleasure to hear and see what’s going on for you there, and almost always closely parallels our activity here. It did take a lot of restraint to not look in at the juncos, but we’ve had other nest eggs and boxes to watch that are less intrusive. Found violet-green swallow eggs today…yay! Sending smiles and thanks your way. Really appreciate you stopping by, Gunta.

  11. Love seeing any of my bird visitors build a nest. We have a Black-capped Chickadee using a teardrop camper birdhouse mounted on our front porch. If we spend too much time on the porch, the mama flutters out of the house and onto a tree, scolding us. In our garage we have a group of loud European Starling nestlings. The parents enter through holes in the cedar siding and they reside in the space between the outside and inside walls. Hoping my annual Carolina Wrens build a nest in our fence, under a roof eave and between outside and inside pickets. Spring is such a great time to watch birds. Unfortunately we had a black bear get into the yard and take down four feeders. She/he went to the neighbor’s house and did the same thing there. We mounted motion sensor lights and were lucky not to see the bear last night, though it returned to my neighbor’s yard for more mischief. We also have a fence which the neighbor doesn’t have. Her feeders are on stands and ours are in the ground. Guessing we might still have another visit. Will be mounting a wildlife camera tomorrow- maybe I’ll have some bear shots to post!

    • Oh how I loved hearing about your mischievous bear, cj. Also enjoyed your anticipation for the nesting activity ahead with the Carolina wrens. It will be so great to capture photos of the bear on the wildlife camera….if he doesn’t take it down, that is. Lovely to have you stop by, thanks very much.

  12. Lovely dark-eyed junco. It’s so sad to think how the babie birds are vulnerable. A friend of mine said that she saw a eagle was attacking the babie ducks, mother duck cried their her out…
    A wonderful post and images, Jet.

    • Hi Amy. Yes, it is a rough world out there for baby birds, and great when you have a successful brood fledge, like the juncos did for us. I’m happy I could share this happy story. And I’m really glad you stopped by today, Amy, thank you.

  13. I had the dark-eyed junco in my backyard several times in my backyard through the years; it was always a pleasure to see them. It’s a beautiful bird, I wish I could see them more often. You are lucky that they make their nests in your property. Thank you, Jet. 🙂

    • Oh so wonderful to have you stop by, HJ, and I’m glad I could share the junco nest post with you today. I agree with you, they are a beautiful bird. I saw on the range map that they don’t come to FL, so I am not surprised you don’t see many in GA. Happy I could share these with you today. My warmest thanks.

  14. This is a fascinating story told with great details, and photos of course, in a masterly fashion. Thank you for sharing it. In our area, we do get Juncos in late fall and winter, but now they are all gone.

    • I appreciated hearing about the juncos on the east coast, Hien, and knowing they had now moved on north to their breeding ground. Thanks so much for your visit, too, and your kind and warm words. Much appreciated.

    • It was a delight to bring a true story to you, Steve, with a happy ending. You’re right, we don’t always have the happy endings in life or in nature, so when we do, it’s cause for celebration. Thanks for your visit.

  15. I didn’t know the Dark Eyed Junco nested on the ground. We had house sparrows nesting in our outside garage lights. They flew out every time I walked by or opened the door. Then 1 day I see them in the light and acting like they can’t get out. The next day the 2 sparrows are still there and still trying to get out. They built the nest so in order to get out they had to go down and they couldn’t do it – they just kept going up. I finally reached up and pulled them out. I found this behavior very curious.

    • I so enjoyed your curious sparrows story, Bill. When we watch these scenes unfold before us, they sometimes present oddities that don’t seem to jive. But we all know humans certainly don’t do logical things sometimes, and animals are the same way. I’m glad you were able to literally give them a hand when it was clear they were in trouble. Thanks so much for this story, dear Bill.

  16. That’s a wonderful story Jet and such a beautiful little bird! We have a nest above our door (in the small gap between the door and the porch roof), but we’re still not sure if the (Redstart) birds decided to build another elsewhere or whether they laid any eggs and had a successful fledge. We’ll have a look at the nest sometime but, for now, we’ve just left it in case something is still coming and going (not that we have seen any Redstarts nearby recently).

    • I so enjoyed hearing about your Redstart nest, Mike, thank you. Sounds like you and Jude are doing just what we did, watching and waiting and giving them space. I had to familiarize myself, just now, with this bird. They are beautiful birds, and very similar to the juncos in that they are largely migratory, and songbirds. It looks like you have two species of redstarts in Switz.: the common and the black. With the snow melting and the butterflies fluttering on your Alps now, the bird activity must be picking up too. How lovely. Cheers, my friend, and many thanks.

  17. Hello dear Jet. Right now, totally exhausted! after trimming trees for hours. Photos are exceptional.
    They explain life and all it’s wonders through our vision and mind, if we can still think!
    You represent the best life has to offer. thank you dear Jet!

  18. YIPPEE!!! I read the posting with bated breath and cheered at the outcome! It does seem like folly to build your nest on the ground; it’s good they were so skilled at camouflage! I love Juncos; they’re so soft- and cuddly-looking.

    • Great fun to receive your message, Nan. I’m chuckling at your big “yippee” and enthusiasm and joy for the happy result of the junco nest. It is such a pleasure to share a happy nature story with you, dear Nan. Thanks ever so much.

  19. What a sweet success story, Jet. We do worry about our bird neighbors and all the hazards they must navigate, esp. during this vulnerable time. I’m glad these nestlings are making their way in the world!

    • I am quite certain you have found your fair share of nests in the garden, Eliza, and a few not-so-happy stories too. As you say, so many hazards they all have to navigate. Thanks so much for your lovely comment. We celebrate the good results.

  20. I love a story with a good ending. 🙂 Juncos come through here as part of their migration in vast numbers. It’s not a good time to plant grass seed. They then head on to nest elsewhere. Three years ago when I was hiking down the PCT to celebrate my 75th birthday I came on a nest. Careful not to disturb it, I peeked and took a photo. Mom hovered nearby and quickly returned. I wished her good luck with her brood. Love the photo of the gopher snake! –Curt

    • I’m happy to share this junco nest story, Curt, and enjoyed yours too. Glad you liked the gopher snake photo, too, and the way it so cleverly wrapped around the propane pipe. My thanks for your visit and comment.

  21. What an interesting story with such a happy ending, Jet! I am in awe what these lovely Juncos do to protect their nest and their young, despite building their nest in such a relatively ‘open’ location on the ground. You are certainly blessed with a very special window on the natural world, literally!

    • So wonderful to receive your warm comment, BJ, thanks so much. I’m glad I could share the junco story and what goes on outside my–to use your lovely words–“very special window.”

  22. What an enchanting post! It speaks volumes for not having overly manicured gardens and for leaving secret undisturbed corners to provide shelter and even nesting spots for birds and other critters. These birds were fortunate to have you as such sensitive hosts. Even though you did not see the babies it is so special to know that the parents made a success of raising them in their exquisite little nest.
    That wild amaryllis is gorgeous and how amazing that it smells like bubblegum, which for the most part is also pink. I wonder if bubblegum was designed to smell like wild amaryllis?!

    • A delight to have you stop by, Carol, and your final comment about bubblegum and amaryllis has me smiling as I type. I’m happy you found the junco nest post enchanting, and it’s a thrill as a writer to hear. We have had the pleasure of being on this property for 20 years, and have worked hard at keeping it native and wild and welcoming to all wild animals. Your comment about not have overly manicured gardens was appreciated for this reason. It has been a joy to watch generations of birds and animals evolve and thrive here, and great fun to share the joys. Thanks very much for your visit, and astute and supportive comment.

      • We also try to keep our garden in the suburbs relatively wildlife friendly and several areas we leave undisturbed. I think planting for birds and wild animals provides so much more for them than stocking birdfeeders in areas with no real habitat for shelter and nesting materials and without more natural and varied food sources (although birdfeeders do have their place depending on local circumstances). Also it is a more relaxed and diverse style of ‘gardening’, and as you say it is great fun to share!

  23. Wonderful photos and love a story with a happy ending! They are one of my favorite birds that visit in the winter and it’s amazing they made it with the variety of visitors you have. There are a few animals I would not want to see while looking out the window, but what a wonderful nature show you get to watch from the kitchen sink!

    • Always fun to have you stop by, ACI, thanks so much. Yes, it is a wonderful nature show at the kitchen sink, and from your fun words I am guessing the gopher snake is one of the animals you would not want to see from that window. Gives me a chuckle. It’s a good thing Athena dashed out there for a photo, because it is hard to believe even after witnessing it. Many thanks for your lovely visit.

  24. We do have the slate-coloured juncos here, they are so cute! I don’t really know if they are truly migrating as I see them more often during the winter time.
    I also enjoy watching the birdfeeder while doing the dishes🙂
    Such a beautiful story!
    Christie
    xx

  25. I usually see juncos in the winter and they are the cutest birds! That is wonderful that your story has a happy ending and the nest was successfully concealed… 🙂

    • The juncos are, indeed, such sweet little birds. Fun that your sister calls them “little soldiers,” Anneli — shows how endearing they have become to her and you. Thanks so much for your visit and comment, always appreciated.

    • When we spend a lot of time outdoors we know the perils for nesting birds, so I’m glad I could share a happy ending with you, Andrea. And more good news to report: I saw two of the juveniles yesterday, so fun. Thanks very much for stopping by, Andrea.

  26. We also have Dark-eyed Juncos come to our yard when we have feeders out which is not recently since bears come around and destroy them. I always worry about ground nesters but they do disguise their nests well and are obviously fairly successful. That gopher snake is beautiful.

    • Your visiting bears would definitely be a threat to ground nesters, Steve. yikes. Glad you enjoyed the junco post and the gopher snake. Thanks so much for your visit today.

  27. I’ve never seen a junco; they are beautiful birds, and I can imagine the pleasure your little pair gave to you. I have seen many nests this year, and just now there are parents galore flying back and forth to my feeders. Bluejays, chickadees, starlings, mockingbirds, and doves make up the bulk of them, although there is a cardinal pair around. I watched one starling nest from beginning to end this year at a marina. At least, I watched the parents. The marinas put caps on top of their dock pilings to keep birds from perching on them, and it didn’t take the starlings long to figure out they could slip under those caps and build their nests! People walk by, hear the babies chirping, and look all around without a clue as to where they are. It’s perfect security!

    • Great to hear your story about the starlings in the marina, Linda. And what fun to have all those different species nesting and active at your feeders. It’s a happy time of year with all the birds so busy, and hopeful too. Cheers to you and your birds, and thanks so much for stopping by.

    • The kitchen sink window does indeed make dishwashing a whole lot more pleasant, Belinda. There’s always so much going on out there. The dishwasher, however, makes it all easier. Nice to have both. And really a joy to receive your kind comment, Belinda, thank you.

    • It was really fun to share this happy ending with you, Wilma, thanks for stopping by. I have been seeing the two juvenile juncos quite a bit lately, and often they are following one parent around and come back near their nest site on their hunting route. Great fun. Thanks so much.

    • It was great to see those little junco nestlings survive, Jo. And I’m happy to report they are out and about now, mostly on their own with just an occasional bit of guidance from the parents. Thank you for stopping by, Jo — always a pleasure.

  28. I enjoyed reading the story of the juncos – and it was wonderful that it had a happy ending in spite of the poorly located nest. The wild amaryllis are beautiful. Until I read this post, I was only familiar with the kind you can buy in stores around the holidays.

    • Thank you Sheryl. I was delighted I could share a happy-ending story. And yes, aren’t those bright pink amaryllis lovely? Their bubble-gum scent is really strong and lovely too.

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