The Real Dirt: Yellow-rumped warblers and dark-eyed juncos – East Bay Times


A yellow-rumped warbler perches on a bird bath. (Courtesy of Karen White)

A yellow-rumped warbler in an original artwork by Carol Burr appears in “The Birds of Bidwell Park.” (UC Master Gardeners of Butte County/Contributed)

Dark-eyed junco. (Karen White/Contributed)

Dark-eyed junco, an original artwork by Carol Burr in “The Birds of Bidwell Park.” (UC Master Gardeners of Butte County/Contributed)

Not all birds commonly seen in California live here year-round. Some appear for just a few weeks during their spring or fall migration. Others may stay for the summer. Yellow-rumped warblers and dark-eyed juncos are two species of birds that are quite often seen in the Central Valley during the winter, when they prefer open spaces like woods, thickets or residential areas.
Both species are lively birds that are fun to watch while they forage in a park or in your garden, before their springtime migration to breeding areas at higher elevations in coniferous forests.
The main winter warbler in North America, the yellow-rumped warbler can be identified by a yellow patch on the rump, a slender bill, and white eye arcs. They may or may not also have yellow patches on the head and sides and a white patch on the throat. In the winter this bird’s plumage is more subdued than it is in summer.
Yellow-rumped warblers feed mainly on insects but will also eat berries in the winter. They forage for their prey on the ground, in foliage, or in mid-air. They are usually in motion, but you may see them perched on exposed branches, watching for insects to fly above them. You can tempt them to come to your bird feeder with hulled sunflower seeds, raisins, suet or mealworms. Having trees and shrubs where they can perch while hunting as well as berry-forming shrubs will also make your yard more attractive to these warblers.
Karen Smith, an experienced birder who is field trip coordinator for Altacal Audubon Society, says the yellow-rumped warbler, fondly nicknamed “butter butt” because of the bright yellow patch just above the tail, is a fun bird to see in the winter months. This small warbler can be seen flitting from branch to branch in search of insects such as caterpillars and other larvae, ants and aphids, just to name a few.
“I usually hear their ‘chip, chip’ sound before I see them,” Smith says.
The dark-eyed junco is a species in the New World sparrow family. There are many plumage variations, but in our area the most common Dark-eyed Junco has a dark, blackish hood if it is male and a gray hood if it is female. Both male and female dark-eyed juncos have a reddish-brown back and sides, white belly, dark eyes, and a pinkish bill. Their white outer tail feathers are visible in flight but hidden when stationary.
Dark-eyed juncos generally feed in flocks on seeds of weeds and grasses in the winter, often pecking and scratching the leaf litter to forage and flying into a nearby shrub when startled.
In the summer they also eat insects and their larvae, spiders, and some berries. They will feed on millet, hulled sunflower seeds and cracked corn that falls from your bird feeder. You can also let some vegetables and flowers in your garden go to seed and leave them standing to provide more winter food.
The dark-eyed junco is one of Karen Smith’s favorite backyard birds to watch while they scratch up seeds on the ground along with other sparrows. She says that in flight their bright white outer tail feathers flash. This is helpful for identifying these birds in the field if they are too far away to see clearly, which can especially be the case when they are grouped with other ground such as the white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows.
You can count on these two species of birds to provide you with hours of backyard entertainment in winter. A useful resource for bird identification is “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.”
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension system, serving our community in a variety of ways, including 4-H, farm advisers, and nutrition and physical activity programs.
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