Dark-eyed Juncos are commonly seen in our area during the winter. Breeding in the high country, they move back to the “lowlands” starting in August and September. Five (although some say just four) subspecies can—sometimes—be differentiated. Below you’ll find links to photos of the five subspecies, with some hints for separating them. (Note that all of these photos were taken by Colorado’s own Bill Schmoker, of Longmont.)
The gray-headed juncos have (surprise!) gray heads, chests, and bellies. A brown patch can be seen across the upper back. These guys are probably the easiest to identify. On the other end of the spectrum, Oregon and pink-sided juncos can be tricky to separate; some people think that they are really just color variations of the same subspecies. Oregon males have a very dark hood; Oregon females have a dark hood that is a bit lighter than the male’s. Both can have pink on their sides. Pink-sideds can be difficult to differentiate from female Oregons. If the dark eyes are hard to see, you’re probably looking at a female Oregon. If you can see the dark eyes set off from the hood, it’s probably a Pink-sided.
Slate-colored juncos have stunning charcoal gray backs, heads, and chest that contrast sharply with their white bellies. And finally, white-winged juncos are also solid gray, but a lighter gray than a slate-colored. Slender eponymous white wing bars decorate the middle of their wings. Beware, though–slate-coloreds can have hints of white wing bars too. In that case, you’ll need to try to gauge how dark the gray is to make a guess. As with Oregons and pink-sideds, if you can easily see the eyes, you may be looking at a white-winged; if it’s hard to see the dark eyes, it’s probably dark enough to be a slate-colored.
Or just don’t care and enjoy them all, unnamed and undifferentiated!
As a member of the large sparrow family, juncos are primarily seed eaters, found easily at well-stocked feeders. They feed most commonly on the ground; however, they will also take to feeders. For instance, juncos seem to enjoy our thistle feeder, which is designed for more slender finches, such as Pine Siskins, House Finches, and goldfinches. It can be rather amusing seeing those chunky junco bodies wrangling thistle seed out of the tiny portholes. But wrangle they do!
Juncos have a distinctive “chip” call note that they utter frequently while foraging. On a warm winter’s day, you can often hear their lovely, bell-like song lilting through the air. You can hear both the song and the call notes here.