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Dark-eyed Junco

Junco hyemalis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Dark-eyed Junco Photo

Dark-eyed Juncos are neat, even flashy little sparrows that flit about forest floors of the western mountains and Canada, then flood the rest of North America for winter. They’re easy to recognize by their crisp (though extremely variable) markings and the bright white tail feathers they habitually flash in flight. One of the most abundant forest birds of North America, you’ll see juncos on woodland walks as well as in flocks at your feeders or on the ground beneath them.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.5–6.3 in
14–16 cm
Wingspan
7.1–9.8 in
18–25 cm
Weight
0.6–1.1 oz
18–30 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Chipping Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Junco ardoisé (French)
  • Junco ojo oscuro (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Juncos are the "snowbirds" of the middle latitudes. Over most of the eastern United States, they appear as winter sets in and then retreat northward each spring. Some juncos in the Appalachian Mountains remain there all year round, breeding at the higher elevations. These residents have shorter wings than the migrants that join them each winter. Longer wings are better suited to flying long distances, a pattern commonly noted among other studies of migratory vs. resident species.
  • The Dark-eyed Junco is one of the most common birds in North America and can be found across the continent, from Alaska to Mexico, from California to New York. A recent estimate set the junco’s total population at approximately 630 million individuals.
  • The oldest recorded Dark-eyed Junco was 11 years 4 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in forests across much of North America and at elevations ranging from sea level to more than 11,000 feet. They are often found in coniferous forests incuding pine, Douglas-fir, spruce, and fir, but also in deciduous forests such as aspen, cottonwood, oak, maple, and hickory. During winter and on migration they use a wider variety of habitats including open woodlands, fields, roadsides, parks, and gardens.

Food


Seeds

Dark-eyed Juncos are primarily seed-eaters, with seeds of chickweed, buckwheat, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, and the like making up about 75% of their year-round diet. At feeders they seem to prefer millet over sunflower seeds. During the breeding season, Dark-eyed Juncos also eat insects including beetles, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, ants, wasps, and flies.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.9–2.1 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.5–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
10–13 days
Egg Description
White, gray, pale bluish white, or pale-greenish white speckled with brown, gray and green. Occasionally unmarked.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for dark gray down on the back, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

Females build the nests, using her beak to weave together materials and her body to give the nest its shape. Nests can be quite variable depending on where they are built. Sometimes ground nests get just a fine lining of grasses or pine needles. Other nests may be built on a foundation of twigs, leaves and moss, then lined with grasses, ferns, rootlets, hair, and fine pieces of moss. The nests usually take 3-7 days to build, and when finished they are 3-5.5 inches across, with an inner diameter of 2.4-2.8 inches and depth of 1.6-2.8 inches. It’s rare for a junco to reuse a nest.

Nest Placement

Ground

The female chooses the nest site, typically in a depression or niche on sloping ground, rock face, or amid the tangled roots of an upturned tree. Around people, juncos may nest in or underneath buildings. Occasionally, juncos nest above the ground on horizontal branches (rarely as high as 45 feet), window ledges, and in hanging flower pots or light fixtures.

Dark-eyed Junco Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Dark-eyed Junco Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

When foraging, Dark-eyed Juncos typically hop (rather than walk) on the ground, pecking or scratching at the leaf litter, or flit very low in underbrush gleaning food from twigs and leaves. They sometimes fly up from the ground to catch insects from tree trunks. In flight, they flap continuously and pump their tails so the white outer tail feathers flash; flight is very agile as the bird maneuvers through its tangled environs. Male juncos are very territorial in summer, chasing off intruders in rapid flights accompanied by excited call notes. When males court females, they fan or flick open their wings and tail, hop up and down, and pick up pieces of nest material or moss; females seem to prefer males that show more white in the tail. During winter, Dark-eyed Juncos form fairly large flocks, and where wintering ranges overlap you may find several subspecies in a single flock. Juncos also forage with other sparrows and bluebirds. Junco flocks typically have a hierarchy or pecking order, and earlier arrivals tend to rank higher in the group than later arrivals.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Dark-eyed Juncos are numerous and widespread, though the North American Breeding Bird Survey reports that populations declined by about 1.2 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 41 percent. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 200 million with 81 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 65 percent in Canada, and 7 percent in Mexico. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

Dark-eyed Junco Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to medium-distance migrant. Juncos that breed in Canada and Alaska migrate to the southern United States in winter. Some populations in the Rocky Mountains are only short-distance migrants, and some individuals in the West and in the Appalachian Mountains of the East don’t migrate at all.

Backyard Tips

You can find Dark-eyed Juncos by walking around open, partially wooded areas with understory for cover. Keep your eyes on the ground and listen for their twittering call or their trilling song. If they are flushed from the ground, look for an overall gray or dark brown bird with obvious white outer tail feathers.

Find This Bird

You can find Dark-eyed Juncos by walking around open, partially wooded areas with understory for cover. Keep your eyes on the ground and listen for their twittering call or their trilling song. If they are flushed from the ground, look for an overall gray or dark brown bird with obvious, white outer tail feathers.

Get Involved

Did you know that Dark-eyed Juncos are often one of the most frequently reported birds at feeders? Report your counts to Project FeederWatch.

Look for Dark-eyed Junco nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

Keep your cats indoors! Read about how cats kill a diversity of backyard birds, including juncos.

Enhance your yard to attract sparrows and other birds. Visit our web pages on landscaping for birds.

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Dark-eyed Junco from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)