Dark-eyed Juncos are a winter feeder bird across the United States and the very southern part of Canada. After breeding in mountainous and far north regions of North America, they spend the winter in the lower parts of North America. They return north in the spring.
The Genus Junco (Sparrow family)
Juncos are grayish small sparrows with white outer tail feathers and white bellies. Where the various Juno color variations were classified as six separate species, all the dark-eyed Juncos are now considered one species. The common characteristic is the dark eyes. The feathers can be various colors depending on the local, regional population’s characteristics.
Classified as one species (Dark-eyed Juncos) with six regional populations each with their own color variations. Their color patterns are simple and they share these characteristics – unmarked grayish to blackish head, small pink bill, and flashing white outer tail feathers.
Males show more of the color variations. Females are more brown overall. Juveniles are striped like House Sparrows.
These are the six regional color variations. Field guides often show rough estimates of the range of each color variation.
Oregon – dark, dull-grey hood, distinctive brown back and sides.
Immature Oregon Dark-eyed Junco, photo on Wikimedia.com.
Pink-sided – light blue-gray hood head, tail feathers black in the center with white feathers along the sides, and pinkish feathers on the sides of the breast.
White-winged – larger than slate-colored, more pale gray over body, palest gray on throat, gray tail with white sides, faint white wing bars.
Photo: on ebird.com White-winged Dark-eyed Junco
Slate-colored – overall color varies form pale brown to dark gray. Head and body are a uniform gray color or pale brown color.
The one Juncos not classified as a Dark-eyed Juncos is the Yellow-eyed Junco (Junco phaeonotus), which lives in the mountains of southeastern Arizona and Mexico.
- Size: 6 inches long
- Bill: pale pink
- Eye: dark
- Body: whitish belly, dark tail with conspicuous white tail feathers on the sides
- Feathers: color variations in local, regional populations.
- Voice: calls include “tsip”, “zeet”, and “kew kew”. Their songs consists of short or long trills.
- Habitats: Summer and breeding habitat – spends the warm months in Canada, Alaska and the Far north in woods, wood edges, bogs, and mountains above the tree line. Winters are spent in the lower 48 of the United States and along the border with Mexico. Some regional populations spend the summer breeding season in the northeastern U.S. and in the eastern mountains. Another population spends summer in the mountains of the western U.S. including southeastern Arizona and Mexico.
Juncos at the Feeder
Juncos show up at our feeders in the winter. They are a common winter feeder bird across the United States and the very southern part of Canada. Many people call Junos “snow birds”, because they show up at the start of winter. I have several photos of Juncos visiting my feeders when snow is on the ground.
Flocks of Juncos (20 or more birds) return to the same area each winter. Membership in a flock is fixed, meaning new birds don’t just join or the flock doesn’t split up often. And apparently, these little guys have a social hierarchy.
These small birds feed mostly on the ground. Juncos don’t scratch the ground to uncover food. I watch them search for food underneath the feeders as a flock of House Sparrows noisily eat and fling seeds all over the place. They seem content to eat whatever mixed seed falls from the feeder. They will also eat from trays on the ground.
Juncos will fly up and eat from a suet feeder. In a pinch if they isn’t any seed on the ground they will fly up to hanging platforms or bird feeders to feed.
Juncos can also be aggressive at feeders, perhaps having to do with their social hierarchy.
These birds also eat weed and grass seeds, including the seeds of zinnias and cosmos. In summer they search on the ground for insects.
I don’t know if Juncos have a favorite bird seed. I bet they like sunflower seeds without the shells, thistle, and maybe millet. Generally the small seeds they don’t have to remove the shell.
And don’t forget these birds like cover close by. Placing feeders near a shrub or tree they can retreat to at the first sign of danger is a plus.
Juncos and Nature Journal Prompts
The appearance of Juncos is a good phenology detail you can track in your nature journal.
- Good questions to ask and record include:
- What date do you first notice the Juncos?
- What is the phase of the Moon when they arrive. Is it a bright full Moon perfect for migrating at night?
- Are the deciduous leaf trees bare when the Juncos arrive?
- Are the conifers dropping cones below the trees?
- What flower and grass seeds do they eat?
- Are they at the feeders when certain birds are present or not present?
- Do you notice a hierarchy? Who eats first? Are the birds male or female, juvenile or adults?
- Are there more females or males? Females may fly further south while males stay farther north to be closer to northern nesting areas for a quick trip north to the best nesting spots.
Now we know a little bit more about these cute little birds the signal the start of winter. If you participate in Feederwatch, you’ll know a bit more about these little grayish birds who show up at your feeders.
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Barker, Margaret A., and Jack L. Griggs. The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding. 1st ed. A Cornell Bird Library Guide. New York, NY: HarperResource, 2000.
Burton, Robert, and Stephen W. Kress. Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders & Bird Gardens. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 1999.
Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. Eastern Region. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.
———. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. Western Region. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.