What does it mean when birds appear? Most of us would say it’s a sign of spring. But when flocks of these handsome sparrows show up at backyard feeders, it means the snowbirds have arrived.

In the fall, the Dark-eyed Junco travels to its winter grounds through much of the continental U.S. from its summer breeding grounds in Alaska, much of Canada as well as the Arctic Circle. They may also come down from the mountains in the western U.S. and the Appalachians.

Back east, there’s an easy way to remember the Dark-eyed Junco. With their dark gray feathers and white bellies, the folk saying goes like this: “Gray skies above, snow on the ground.”

Depending on where you are in the U.S., the plumage of the Dark-eyed Junco can look very different from region to region. In fact, until the 1980s, juncos were split into five distinct species. But now, they’re lumped together, and when you talk about the Slate-colored Juncos (gray bellies), and Oregon Juncos (brown backs, reddish sides), Pink-sided Juncos and the White-winged Juncos, these are now classified as subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco.

In fact, because of these physical variations in the Junco, they’ve been the subject of much scientific study, giving researchers new insights about evolution as well as songbirds. (To discover more, be sure and watch this fascinating video series "Ordinary Extraordinary Junco" from Indiana University.)

By summer, they live at the forest's edge, hopping on the ground in search of insects and seeds. They build their nests in shallow depressions in the ground, usually under a log, bush or something that helps conceal the nest from the eyes of the world. Before the chicks learn to fly, they develop strong leg muscles so they can run from a predator, if needed. 

In the winter, they live in flocks of up to 25 birds, sometimes joining flocks of other sparrow species, foraging for seed on the ground. They’re also frequent feeder visitors, and especially enjoy sunflower seeds, millet, cracked corn and peanuts — all of which and more are found in Lyric's Supreme Mix.

Dark-eyed Junco, male. Thinkstock