Dark-eyed juncos may not be the flashiest in the neighborhood, but these adorable little birds have more to offer than meets the eye. Almost anywhere you go in the U.S. or Canada, there is a species of dark-eyed junco there. From their behaviors to their habits, here are 16 interesting facts about dark-eyed juncos that will surely make you appreciate their unique charm.
1. Dark-eyed Junco’s plumage varies from region to region.
One of the most interesting aspects of dark-eyed juncos is their diverse appearance. These juncos show color variations depending on where they live. There are as many as 15 separate subspecies of the dark-eyed junco, some easy to tell apart and others showing only subtle differences.
Slate-colored juncos are a sooty gray above with pale bellies and make up most of the Canadian and eastern U.S. population. Oregon juncos have a very dark head and lighter body, and make up much of the west coast population. Gray-headed juncos can be found in the southern Rocky Mountains while Pink-sided Juncos breed in the northern Rocky Mountains. The list goes on and on, a junco for every region! In some places their ranges overlap and you may be able to see more than one type.
2. Males and females can have slight color variations.
With all those variations of juncos, it is hard to say any one rule applies to them all. For some subspecies, difference between males and females are hard to notice or barely exist. But some species do have differences between the sexes you can see.
For the common slate-colored juncos, males upper half tends to be either a medium or dark gray. Females are usually lighter in color, and tend to have a noticeable brownish hue rather than solid gray. Similarly, male Oregon juncos have a very dark head and more boldly contrasted colors, while females have a lighter gray head and less contrast.
3. Dark-eyed Juncos forage on the ground.
Juncos are sometimes referred to as “ground dwellers” because they spend so much of their time there. They can often be found searching for seeds and insects on the forest floor. One study from New Hampshire found that juncos spent 65% of their time on the ground, 20% in shrubs, and 16% in low trees. While on the ground they prefer to hop around rather than walk.
If you watch them long enough you will probably see them do the “junco shuffle”, where they quickly hop forwards then backwards, scratching the ground. This helps them pick through leaf litter, seed shells and whatever else is on the ground to uncover hidden insects or seeds.
4. Migration Varies Depending On Their Location.
Dark-eyed juncos typically travel south during the winter months. However, how south they go depends on their summer location. For example, slate-colored juncos that spend the summer breeding in Alaska and Canada usually migrate long distances south into the United States to spend the winter. So for many states in the eastern U.S., they are seen as winter birds.
Other populations like those in the Rocky Mountains, may only migrate short distances to the plains or northern Mexico. There are even some in the Appalachian Mountains and southern California that don’t migrate at all.
5. Dark-eyed Juncos are speedy nest builders.
When it comes to building their nests, juncos are not ones to procrastinate. They exhibit speed in constructing their nests, often finishing them in just 3-7 days. Females are the nest builders, using twigs, moss, leaves, grasses, and occasionally even hair. Nests are not often used a second time.
6. Dark-eyed Juncos nest low to the ground.
Speaking of nests, juncos possess a knack for secrecy when it comes to choosing their nesting locations. Rather than building nests in trees, they tend to choose a depression on the ground, a niche in a rock face or tucked away in the roots of fallen trees. They are masters of discretion and tend to select concealed spots ensuring the safety of their eggs. However, people have also found junco nests in hanging planters or on their window ledge. Eggs are white or off-white, commonly with brown speckles.
7. Dark-eyed juncos sing in trills and chip notes.
Although dark-eyed juncos might not top the music charts like some other bird species, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a full repertoire of chirps, trills, and other melodious notes. Those of us that know them as winter birds tend to only hear their calls, a quiet tsk or more sharp kew-kew-kew. But on their breeding grounds males sing a song that sounds like a musical trill, with even, rapid notes.
They use soft contact calls and sharper warning notes to maintain social connections and alert others about potential dangers in their surroundings.
8. Dark-eyed juncos are social during the winter.
Like many birds, during the breeding season males become aggressive with each other. They chase each other away from claimed territory and keep close watch over their neighborhood. But once all that nesting business is over, they can become friends again.
During the winter juncos often gather in flocks consisting of 15 to 25 birds, and can even join larger flocks of other sparrows or bluebirds. In areas where the ranges of several subspecies overlap, they may group together. While things are friendly in the flock, a “pecking order” is still established, with those that joined the group last at the bottom.
9. Dark-eyed Juncos are adaptable survivors.
Dark-eyed juncos are little survivors. They can thrive in habitats ranging from forests to urban areas, deserts to mountains, which showcase their impressive ability to adjust to different environments. Their habitat selection expands during the non-breeding season, but to breed must include forests.
10. Male Juncos use their tails to court females.
In the spring, males try several tactics to impress potential mates. This includes hopping up and down, picking up pieces of nest material like moss and showing it to the female, and fanning out their wings and tail. Researchers think that females tend to prefer males that show more white in their tails.
11. Populations are strong, but declining.
While these birds possess resilience and are still common, their populations are threatened by habitat loss and climate change like most birds. Because they are still widespread and are found in large numbers, they are considered low on the list of conservation concern. That being said, studies show that between 1966 and 2019 their numbers have declined by 31%.
12. Seeds make up most of the Dark-eyed Junco’s diet
Dark-eyed juncos are big seed eaters, with up to 75% of their annual diet coming from seeds. Weed plants like ragweed, chickweed and lamb’s quarters fill a lot of their seed quota. They do include insects in their diet, especially while nesting and to feed their young. This includes caterpillars, flies and beetles.
13. Dark-eyed Juncos do visit backyard bird feeders.
Many bird enthusiasts are delighted to find dark-eyed juncos visiting their backyard feeders, especially during the winter. They will eat from almost any type of seed feeder including tube feeders, mesh feeders, hoppers and platform feeders. But you’ll probably see them most often on the ground underneath your feeders scratching around for spilt seeds. Millet is a junco favorite, but they will also eat cracked corn, milo, sunflower, safflower and peanut pieces.
14. “Snowbird” is a common nickname for Dark-eyed Juncos
Juncos are often referred to as “snowbirds” because they arrive across much of the eastern U.S. right as winter begins. But that nickname only works for part of the country. For those in the plains states, the west coast and the southwest, other subspecies of dark-eyed juncos can be found during the spring and summer.
15. Dark-eyed Juncos have plenty of winter coping strategies
For those that spend the winter in cold climates, they have several strategies for keeping warm and fed. They grow some extra feathers for the winter, so when they fluff up, they can hold more warm air against their body. At night they roost in evergreen trees, brush piles or tall grasses to get out of the wind and weather. They’ve even been known to burrow through shallow snow to locate seeds underneath.
16. Common Junco traits
No matter which juncos live in your area, there are a few standard traits you can look for when identifying them. These little birds have rounded bodies and round heads. In general they comes in shades of gray and brown – no yellows or reds. Their beak will be a pale pink, and their tail will have white feathers along the outer edge, although that is sometimes hard to see unless they fan it out.
- “Singing Behavior of Dark-eyed Junco,” Russell C. Titus, Bird Observer, 2002, sora.unm.edu
- “Dark-eyed Junco,” Bent, Arthur Cleveland, Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237, 1968, birdsbybent.com
- “What Do Juncos Eat and How to Attract Them,” Kirsten Schrader, Birds and Blooms, Aug. 24, 2022, birdsandbloom.com
- “Fun Facts About Juncos,” Wild Birds Unlimited, scarborough.wbu.com
Amanda has a love for beekeeping and all things related to nature. She is also a small business owner, crafting various goods using the honey and beeswax harvested from her hives. Amanda resides in the tranquil mountains of West Virginia where she shares her home with her husband and beloved feline companions.