Feb 26, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2020

Junco Facts You Might Not Know

Dark-eyed juncos, as they are officially called, have long been seen as symbolic, their "leaden sky above, snow below" coloration being a sort of meteorological microcosm of a snowy winter day.
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Juncos begin leaving their homes in the boreal forests across northern North America in October and tend to return to the same areas each year, bird banding research has shown.

Solitary juncos are rarely observed. Juncos form flocks in winter, with usually 15 to 30 birds foraging together in a winter territory around 10 acres in size. They make daily rounds of the territory, pausing at prime feeding spots before moving on.

Flocks have a hierarchy. Males dominate females, and adults lord over immatures.

Juncos are members of the sparrow family, but when a flock is flushed, it usually flies into the tree tops rather than diving into a thicket or brush pile, as most other sparrows do.

Yellow-eyed junco.

Two species of junco can be found in North America. The yellow-eyed junco is a year-round resident of southeastern Arizona. Its range extends south to Honduras. The dark-eyed junco is found across North America, but at various locations it can look quite different from the ones in your backyard. All juncos have a white belly and white outer tail feathers; most have a pale bill.

Slate-colored juncos range from brown to dark gray, with little or no contrast between the head and body. They breed from northern Alaska and across Canada from coast to coast. They are year-round residents of the northern Great Plains, New England, and in high elevations in the Appalachians. In winter, they can be found across the Lower 48 from coast to coast.

Dark-eyed junco, Oregon form, found mostly in the West.

Oregon juncos, both males and females, have a dark cap and gray/brown back and wings. They are year-round residents along the Pacific coast, from southern Alaska to southern California. In winter, they disperse across much of the West.

Other color forms of the dark-eyed junco are more regionally restricted in the West, and include the pink-sided junco, the white-winged junco, the gray-headed junco, and the red-backed junco.

Gray-headed junco.

Male juncos are darker than females. Females usually show more brown on the back and sides. Immatures are like females, but even duller, with more brown and paler gray. Female juncos seem to prefer males that show more white in their tail.

Only the worst weather will bring large numbers of juncos to the feeder. In the deep South, where natural bird food is rarely covered by snow, juncos are less frequent at feeders. Juncos might not even turn up in the deep South until frigid temperatures and severe snow or ice storms hit farther north.

In late winter, junco flocks begin to get restless, and chases may have more to do with pairing than defending a feeding space. This is when juncos begin to sing. There is no surer sign that spring is on the way than to wake to a yard full of junco song.

Junco song is a loud, dry trill, similar to the song of a chipping sparrow, but slower and richer. It signals that the birds will be winging north again in a few months.



About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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