Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
|Also known as:||grey-headed junco, Guadalupe junco, Oregon junco, pink-sided junco, red-backed junco, slate-colored junco, slate-coloured junco, snowbird, white-winged junco|
|Size||Length: 13 - 17 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 18 - 25 cm (3)
|Weight||18 - 30 g (3)|
- The dark-eyed junco is one of the most common and familiar small birds in North America.
- Dark-eyed juncos from different areas vary quite considerably in size, colouration and behaviour.
- The dark-eyed junco has characteristic white outer tail feathers, which are conspicuous in flight.
- The dark-eyed junco is often known as the ‘snowbird’, as over much of the eastern United States it appears at the start of winter and disappears again in spring.
- The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name means ‘winter junco’.
The dark-eyed junco is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
A medium-sized sparrow with quite variable plumage, the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is one of the most common and familiar small birds in North America. In general, individuals are dark grey or brown above, with a dark head, neck and throat and a contrasting white belly (3) (4). The dark-eyed junco also has characteristic white outer tail feathers, which are conspicuous in flight (3) (4) (5) (6) (7).
The dark-eyed junco’s head is rounded, its eyes are dark reddish-brown, and the short, thick bill is usually pink (3) (4) (6). The legs are feet are usually pinkish to brown (4) (6). The male and female dark-eyed junco are similar in appearance, but females are usually slightly smaller, paler and browner than the male (2) (4). In juvenile dark-eyed juncos, the plumage is browner than in the adult and has obvious streaky markings (4) (6). The outer tail feathers of the juvenile show less white than in adults (6).
There is a large degree of variation in the colouration, size, vocalisations and behaviour of dark-eyed juncos from different areas, and around 15 to 16 subspecies have been described, some of which were previously classified as separate species (3) (4) (5) (8). The subspecies are generally placed into five different groups: ‘slate-coloured’, ‘Oregon’, ‘grey-headed’, ‘white-winged’ and ‘Guadalupe’ (4). These groups vary in colouration, with some having more reddish-brown on the back and sides, some having a contrasting dark ‘hood’ over the head and neck, and others having a grey-tinged belly (2) (3) (4) (6). As its name suggests, the ‘white-winged’ group has white bars on the wings (2) (4) (6). However, there is much overlap between the groups and between different subspecies (4) (5).
Although some subspecies of dark-eyed junco are quite similar in appearance to the yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus), the yellow-eyed junco can be distinguished by its bright yellow eye and yellowish beak (3) (4).
The dark-eyed junco’s calls include a short, high ‘chip’ or ‘dit’, a high-pitched twittering and sometimes a musical ‘kew’. Male dark-eyed juncos produce a musical song consisting of a fast trill, and both males and females also give a quieter song that includes various whistles, trills and warbles (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).
The dark-eyed junco has a widespread distribution across Canada, the United States and Mexico (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). It is sometimes also recorded in parts of the Caribbean, and occasionally occurs as a vagrant in Europe (4) (5) (9).
This species breeds mainly in Alaska, Canada and the western United States, as well as south to the Great Lakes and Appalachian mountains in the east. Some dark-eyed junco populations remain in the breeding areas year-round, but most northern populations migrate south for the winter, while others may move to lower elevations (4) (5). The dark-eyed junco is often known as the ‘snowbird’, as over most of the eastern United States it appears at the start of winter and then retreats northward again in the spring (3).
The Guadalupe junco (Junco hyemalis insularis) is endemic to Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, where it is now patchily distributed in the north of the island (9).
The dark-eyed junco breeds in coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7), particularly in more open areas such as clearings and forest edges (5) (7). In some parts of its range it is also found in urban parks and gardens (2).
In winter, the dark-eyed junco can be found in a variety of habitats, including open woodlands, fields, gardens, parks, brushy areas and roadsides (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7), but it rarely occurs far from the cover of trees or bushes (5).
This small bird occurs from sea level up to elevations of about 3,775 metres in the Rocky Mountains (4).
The diet of the dark-eyed junco consists mostly of seeds, but during the breeding season it also feeds on insects and other invertebrates, including beetles, moths, caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies and spiders (3) (4) (6) (7). It also eats some berries (6) (7). The dark-eyed junco typically forages on the ground, hopping around the forest floor or venturing onto lawns, and sometimes scratching in leaf litter or scraping away snow to find food (3) (4) (6) (7). It may sometimes fly up from the ground to catch insects from low vegetation (3) and will also visit bird feeders, although it usually forages on the ground beneath (7).
During the winter, the dark-eyed junco forms relatively large foraging flocks, often with other small bird species (2) (3) (5) (6). In some areas, several dark-eyed junco subspecies may mix together in these winter flocks (3) (5). In contrast, male dark-eyed juncos are highly territorial during the breeding season, singing from prominent perches and chasing away intruders (3) (4) (6) (7).
The dark-eyed junco generally nests between May and July, although breeding is usually later in the north of its range than in the south (2). This species is monogamous (4), and during courtship both members of a pair may hop on the ground with the wings drooping and the tail spread out, showing the white outer tail feathers (6) (7).
The female dark-eyed junco selects the nesting site, which is typically in a small cavity on sloping ground, on a rock face, among tangled roots, under a fallen tree, or even beneath a building (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). Nests may also occasionally be built above the ground, on a horizontal branch, on a building ledge or in a hanging flowerpot (3) (4) (7). The nest is built by the female and usually consists of an open cup of twigs, rootlets, dried leaves and moss, lined with grass, moss, feathers or animal hair (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). Nests inside small holes or cavities may consist of only a thin lining (3) (4).
The dark-eyed junco lays around three to six eggs, which are white, greyish or pale bluish-white, usually speckled with brown (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). The eggs are incubated by the female for 12 to 13 days (3) (4) (6). The young dark-eyed juncos are fed by both adults and leave the nest at about 9 to 13 days old (2) (4) (5), becoming independent around 2 to 3 weeks later (4) (6). In some areas, the adults may go on to have a second or even a third brood in the same year (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).
The dark-eyed junco usually breeds from about a year old (4) and has been recorded living for up to 11 years (3) (4) (6).
A widespread and abundant species, the dark-eyed junco has a stable population and is not currently believed to be at risk of extinction (9).
However, although the species as a whole is not under threat, the Guadalupe junco (J. h. insularis) has been affected by overgrazing by goats, which has greatly reduced forest cover on Guadalupe Island. Feral cats are also likely to prey upon this subspecies. Fortunately, the population of the Guadalupe junco has begun to increase in recent years as a result of conservation efforts (9).
Small numbers of dark-eyed juncos are killed each year by night-time collisions with TV towers, but this is not thought to pose a significant threat to the overall population of this species (4).
There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for the dark-eyed junco population as a whole (4). However, on Guadalupe Island the subspecies J. h. insularis has benefitted from habitat management and goat culls. The island is also designated as a ‘biosphere reserve’ (9).
Recommended conservation measures for J. h. insularis include the complete eradication of goats and cats from Guadalupe Island, as well as surveys to assess the subspecies’ current population size and the amount of remaining habitat (9). Further studies into the biology and taxonomy of the dark-eyed junco may also benefit any future conservation efforts for this small bird (4).
Find out more about the dark-eyed junco and its conservation:
BirdLife International - Dark-eyed junco:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Dark-eyed junco:
Birds of North America Online - Dark-eyed junco:
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- Deciduous forest: forest consisting mainly of deciduous trees, which shed their leaves at the end of the growing season.
- Endemic: a species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
- Feral: previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
- Incubate: to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Invertebrates: animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Taxonomy: the science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
- Territorial: describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
- Vagrant: an individual found outside the normal range of the species.
IUCN Red List (May, 2012)
- Rising, J.D. (2010) A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Christopher Helm Publishers, London.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Dark-eyed junco (May, 2012)
Nolan Jr, V., Ketterson, E.D., Cristol, D.A., Rogers, C.M., Clotfelter, E.D., Titus, R.C., Schoech, S.J. and Snajdr, E. (2002) Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Byers, C., Olsson, U. and Curson, J. (2010) Buntings and Sparrows: A Guide to the Buntings and North American Sparrows. A&C Black Publishers, London.
- Mobley, J.A. (2009) Birds of the World. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, New York.
- Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (May, 2012)
BirdLife International - Dark-eyed junco (May, 2012)