Backyard Bird Bio: Dark-eyed Junco

Seasonal Visitors

Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the most common birds in North America, but I always get excited to see those cute little gray and white birds in the fall. Juncos breed in Canada and Alaska. They visit us in the winter, earning the “snowbirds” moniker. Juncos start to appear in our area in October and often stay until April. In the winter, they are often found in flocks of up to 30, oftentimes with Chipping Sparrows, Pine Siskins, and House Finches.

Observing Juncos

If you’re looking for Juncos, check the ground first; that’s where you’re most likely to spot them. They hop around the bases of trees and shrubs, or out on the lawn, looking for fallen seeds.

Juncos are small birds, about 5–6 inches long. They have gray or dark gray on their heads, necks, and tail with a white chest and some white in their tail feathers. The bill is usually pale pinkish. In flight, they flap their wings continuously and pump their tails so that the white outer feathers flash.

The females look very similar to the males but their feathers are usually more of a brownish gray. Female Juncos often migrate further south than the males to avoid competition. You can often hear their high trilling and twittering notes when they are feeding on the ground and sometimes during flight.

Family Tree

Juncos are a species of sparrow, closely related to the White-crowned Sparrow. There are about 15 recognized subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco, divided into 5 groups: “Slate-colored” Junco, “White-winged” Junco, “Oregon” Junco, “Pink-sided” Junco; and “Gray-headed” Junco. In Minnesota we will usually see the “Slate-colored” Junco.

Diet and Habitat

Juncos are mostly seed-eaters during the winter, when they visit us, but add insects to their diet when breeding. They eat while hopping­—rather than walking—and running on the ground. Sometimes you can see them scratching in leaf litter or snow, looking for food. They will occasionally come to feeders and they prefer millet. ■

Adapted from an article by MELISSA BLOCK in the Nov/Dec 2017 Bird’s-Eye View newsletter.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco in winter. Photo by Jim Weisman.
Dark-eyed Junco in winter. Photo by Jim Weisman.