Dark-eyed Juncos

On the wild side—January, 2011

by Tina Mitchell

A common and conspicuous winter bird, the Dark-eyed Junco frequents rural roadsides and seed feeders in Colorado.  John Jay Audubon once referred to the junco as “the little Snowbird,” and many people today think that that’s its name.  Members of the sparrow family, juncos nest in high spruce and fir forests more so than any other habitat.  Their scientific name—Junco hyemalis—derives from the Latin term “iuncus,” meaning “reed” (they resemble the European “reed bunting”). So you can see (if you squint a bit) where the common name of “junco” came from.  The species name hyemalis translates to “of or belonging to winter,” because in Sweden (where Carl Linnaeus, who named the bird, lived), juncos were seen only in the winter.  They are referred to more formally as Dark-eyed Juncos to differentiate them from the Yellow-eyed Juncos found in Mexico and occasionally in extreme southeastern Arizona.

The junco can be identified by its pink bill and white tail edgings that flash brightly as it flies away.  A long-tailed, small-bodied sparrow, it usually sports a dark “hood” (head, throat, nape) and a dark back that contrasts sharply with a white chest and belly.  I say usually because the species contains 4 (some think 5) subspecies that were once considered separate species.  The  most common junco in our area is usually the “gray-headed” subspecies, with a brown patch high on its overall gray back and gray sides (one of the best clues for identifying this subspecies, if you’re into that sort of thing).  This subspecies breeds in the high country of Colorado—the only junco subspecies to do so.

You might also find other subspecies at your feeder at any time.  The Oregon junco has a dark gray or black hood (males) or dark brown hood (females) with pink sides and a gray back.  Some consider the 3rd subspecies—“pink-sided”—simply a pale variant of the Oregon subspecies; others classify it as a separate subspecies.  It can often be a real challenge to differentiate pink-sideds from Oregons.  You primarily are looking to see how dark their heads are compared to their black eyes.  If the head is so dark that you can’t distinctly see the eyes, it’s probably—PROBABLY—an Oregon.  If the eyes are darker than the rest of the head, pink-sided becomes a good guess.

The last 2 subspecies aren’t as common as the previous ones, although they are among the most stunning.  The “slate-colored” junco has a uniformly very dark gray head and back, with the gray stretching to the chest as well.  And finally, the “white-winged” junco—pretty uncommon in our area—looks like a light version of a slate-colored, except that you can see white wing bars (short strips of white about mid-wing).  Of course, just to keep things dicey, slate-coloreds can exhibit hints white wing bars too.

As a final straw, the various subspecies can hybridize, so you can get lots of variations on the “junco” theme.  Thank goodness they have all been lumped into one super-species of Dark-eyed Junco.  Only the truly obsessed need to worry about all of the details.  The rest of us can just sit back and enjoy their perky presence.

Found all across the continent, Dark-eyed Juncos number among the most common birds in North America.  Recent estimates suggest a population of 630 million individuals.  As you drive along a rural road in winter, check out any small group of dark little birds flying from the road’s edge.  A glimpse of white feathers on the outside edges of their tails means you’ve likely just startled a group of Audubon’s “Snowbirds.”

To see photos and a link to samples of its songs and call notes, click here.

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