Creature Feature: Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco - Photo Earl Harrison
Dark-eyed Junco - Photo Jim McCormac

Dark-eyed Junco – Photo Jim McCormac

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is a medium-sized sparrow with a rounded head, a short, stout bill and a fairly long, conspicuous tail. Juncos vary across the country but in general they’re dark gray or brown birds brightened up by a pink bill and white outer tail feathers that periodically flash open, particularly in flight.

In winter over much of the continent, flocks of Juncos can be found around woodland edges and suburban yards, feeding on the ground, making ticking calls as they fly up into the bushes. East of the plains the Juncos are all gray and white, but in the West they come in various color patterns, with reddish-brown on the back or sides or both; some of these were once regarded as different species. The forms have separate ranges in summer, but in winter several types may occur in the same flock in parts of the West.

Dark-eyed Juncos are birds of the ground. They hop around the bases of trees and shrubs in forests or venture out onto lawns looking for fallen seeds. You’ll often hear their high chip notes, given almost absent-mindedly while foraging, or intensifying as they take short, low flights through cover. Dark-eyed Juncos breed in coniferous or mixed-coniferous forests across Canada, the western U.S., and in the Appalachians. During winter you’ll find them in open woodlands, fields, parks, roadsides, and backyards.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly while hopping and running on the ground. Sometimes scratches with its feet in leaf-litter or snow. Will come to bird feeders, but tends to forage on the ground under the feeding tray.


3-5, rarely 6. Whitish to bluish white or pale gray, with markings of brown and gray often concentrated at larger end. Incubation is by female, about 11-13 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest 9-13 days after hatching. 1-2 broods per year, sometimes 3.


Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest 9-13 days after hatching. 1-2 broods per year, sometimes 3.


Mostly seeds and insects. Close to half of summer diet of adults consists of insects, including caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, true bugs, and others, also spiders. Feeds heavily on seeds of weeds and grasses, especially in winter. Also eats some berries. Young are fed mostly insects.


Male sings from high perch to defend nesting territory. In courtship, both members of pair may hop about on ground with wings drooped and with tail spread widely to show off white outer tail feathers; male may give soft song. Nest site is almost always on ground, well hidden under overhanging grass, under log, rock, or exposed roots, or in shallow hole in dirt bank. Sometimes up in shrub, tree, or ledge of building, rarely more than 10′ above ground. Nest (built mostly by female) is an open cup of grass, weeds, leaves, lined with fine grass and sometimes with hair or feathers.

Songs and Calls

Ringing metallic trill on the same pitch. Members of a flock may spread out widely, keeping in contact by constantly calling tsick or tchet. Also a soft buzzy trill in flight.