Species Profile: Dark-eyed Junco

Male Junco

As mentioned before, I would like to take time out each week to introduce a familiar bird and give personal experiences with the chosen bird.  I will pick seasonally appropriate birds.  Some will be obscure and some common.  This week I chose (kind of randomly) the Dark-eyed Junco.  The Dark-eyed Junco is a common bird and can be found in the winter across the lower 48.

Here are some quick identifying facts

  • It is a small song bird (order Passeriformes) about 5-6 inches in length.
  • The males have an all charcoal back and tail with a white belly.  The female isn’t as dark and has brownish highlights.  Note the different colorations of the various subspecies mentioned below.
  • In flight they spread their tail feathers and the outer feathers are white which is very easy to see.
  • In flight they make a repeated “twit” call.  Their song is a quasi-monotonous trill (I know that sounds contradicting).  Their vocal “piece de resistance” is one of their agression/contact call (could be either or both).  This call sounds like something out of a video game.  Phonetically it looks like “tew-tew-tew” but you just have to hear it.
  • Juncos are a sparrow (Emberizdae) and have a short conical beak and eat mainly seeds/grains in the winter.

The Dark-eyed Junco is found in all states except Hawaii.  With that large of a distribution there is bound to be some diversity.  Juncos have several subspecies.  The eastern subspecies is the Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis hyemalis).  There are several western subspecies, the most popular being:  Gray-headed, White-winged, Pink-sided, and Oregon Junco.  The Oregon Junco is the most common in the west of these four others.  The Oregon is almost as abundant as the Slate-colored and will often venture to the east.  I have Oregon Juncos annually at the feeders.  The Oregon Junco male has a charcoal head but rusty sides and a white belly.  The female has less gray on the head and more brown.

Oregon Junco

Since Juncos eat mainly seeds in the winter, they commonly visit feeders and are a much beloved bird.  A lot of people call them Snowbirds and they are very photogenic in the snow.  They are one of the more hardy, social, and friendly bird we have.  They are one of the few birds I have been able to hand feed.  If you sit near a feeder long enough they might walk right up to you.  Juncos are also hardy.  They winter fairly far north and can stand harsh winters of Canada and northern U.S.  Juncos are very social.  They can be found alone or in large groups at the feeders.  Outside the breeding season the males are a very monopolizing of resources and don’t tolerate females as much as they would in the breeding season.  Because of this disposition, female Juncos typically winter farther south than males.  Since Arkansas is fairly south for the Juncos, we have a good mix of male and female.

At the feeders, Juncos will eat a variety of foods.  They prefer millet and cracked corn but they will eat sunflower seeds, thistle, and nuts (mainly peanuts).  Every now and then they eat suet and they eat berries in the wild so I assume they might eat berries if I provided some they liked.  They primarily feed on the ground and prefer to scratch feed, but they give in to the opportunistic nature found in most birds and will take food from a variety of angles both terrestrial and arboreal.

Juncos prefer a variety of habitats, some surprisingly urban.  They always like to have some ground cover since they feed on the ground a lot.  They love roadsides with brush.  Driving along a road (definitely not a freeway) in the winter, you can see several flocks of Juncos pop up and head for cover.  They are easily identified by their white outer tail feathers.  They are a favorite meal for several predators including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks.  I always like to provide some kind of brush pile like cover for the birds at the feeders  The two most common patrons are Juncos and Wrens.  After Christmas, I put the tree out by the feeders on its side.  The sparrows that visit the feeders love to just hang out in there.  Once, I was watching a large assortment of birds feeding, a couple winters ago, and saw them all scatter suddenly; several Juncos took cover in the tree.  All of the sudden a Sharp-shinned Hawk lands on the ground near the feeders and dives feet first into the tree.  The Juncos were able to escape out the other side and elude the raptor.  I like the hawks and understand that they need to eat as well but I’m glad the tree worked and the Juncos lived to hide another day.

In conclusion, Juncos are one of the more common and abundant winter, feeder birds.  They are hardy and friendly which have made them one of the most beloved American birds.

Female Junco

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