Juncos are one of the most common songbirds in North America.
Yet often when I show a twittering flock of juncos to new bird watchers, they look at me with confused faces and say, “What the heck is a junco?”
For being one of the most common backyard songbirds, these small gray sparrow-sized birds are incredibly easy to overlook!
So today I’d like to share some secrets from the life of Juncos that will show why they’re some of my favorite songbirds.
Here are 12 essential facts everyone should know about Juncos:
1. There Are 5 Common Types of Juncos (But they’re all really the same bird)
Juncos have a huge amount of geographic variation that gives them interesting little quirks of plumage depending on where you go.
Some sources will name as many as 15 different sub-species. The 5 most common Juncos are:
- Oregon Junco
- Slate-colored Junco
- Gray-headed Junco
- Pink-sided Junco
- White-winged Junco
In the past, these were all considered different species, however further investigation has shown these are all actually the same bird, now known as the Dark-Eyed Junco (Junco Hyemalis).
Aside from a few minor differences in appearance, juncos all have pretty much the same diet, nesting habits & behaviors. They even interbreed in places where their ranges overlap.
This is great news because it means once you learn your own local junco, instantly you can travel anywhere in North America and you’ll know the Juncos there too!
2. Juncos Are In The Sparrow Family
Pretty much everyone is at least somewhat familiar with sparrows (even if just by name).
What isn’t immediately apparent is that Juncos are actually a type of sparrow that simply has darker plumage than most other common sparrows.
This is useful to know with an understanding of bird families, which lumps groups of birds together based on shared genetics and characterstics.
The sparrow family shares many common traits including their overall shape, similar behaviors, diet, and similar nesting strategies.
It means when you spend time with Juncos, you also learn an incredible amount about sparrows in general, which is pretty darn cool!
3. The Junco Song Sounds Like An Old-School Telephone
Juncos have a small variety of distinct calls & sounds they make during different situations.
One of the easiest junco sounds to learn is their song, which is made by males in spring and throughout the nesting season.
To me, the Junco song sounds like hearing an old telephone ringing through a partially opened window.
This audio recording contains two Juncos singing in the same area:
This song is one of the easiest of all bird sounds to learn and remember because it’s just so darn simple.
Even more than identification by sight, the song of a Junco is often one of the best clues that they’re living nearby.
This sound is extremely common to hear during spring in parks, backyards, forests, pretty much anywhere that has trees!
4. Juncos Are Ground Feeders
One of the reasons people overlook Juncos is because they’re somewhat plain looking ground feeders who really blend in with dark earthy colors.
This is quite typical for birds who spend most of their time on the ground because it provides effective camouflage from predators.
The main diet of Juncos is mostly seeds and insects found by picking through the mulch under trees & shrubs.
Birds who are more colorful will tend to live and feed higher up off the ground where they aren’t so vulnerable to cats and other dangers down low.
Many people are drawn to birds for their colorful appearances, but don’t let the drab dark-eyed junco fool you into thinking they’re any less interesting.
Their stealthy ways can teach us amazing things about the forest from a bird that has a very unique survival strategy based on stealth and sneakiness.
5. Juncos Nest On The Ground Too!
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about Juncos is their nesting strategy.
Juncos are so incredibly skilled at being stealthy that they frequently will build their nests directly on the ground. (Here are some tips for finding bird nests without disturbing them)
As an example, several years ago I found an active junco nest set into a little ground sprawling pine shrub not 10 feet from my front door.
Then this year I found another nest, just a little further away, but again directly on the ground in a coniferous shrub. Here’s a video showing how they visit the nest.
Just think about how amazing it is that a little bird can nest and raise a family on the ground where any passing cat, dog or raccoon could stick their nose in.
(They’re basically forest ninjas!)
Juncos make cup nests (The stereotypical bird nest shape), but they typically set the cup within 12 inches of the ground and often directly on the ground.
6. Male Juncos Have Darker Plumage Than Females
When observing Junco behavior, and especially during nesting it’s always helpful to know which ones are male and which are females.
The general rule for male Juncos is that their plumage is slightly darker than the females. This is most noticeable in the feathers around their head, especially when using binoculars or studying up close.
The closer you are, the easier it is to see this difference, so make sure you check out my other article with tips on how to get closer to birds like juncos without scaring them away.
Another easy way to tell male from female Juncos is that males sing and females don’t. If you hear a Junco singing, that instantly tells you it’s a male. (Learn more: Why do birds sing?)
7. Juncos Are Awesome Birds To Know In Winter
In many parts of their range Juncos have earned the honorary title of winter-birds, or snowbirds because they arrive in fall and disappear in spring.
This is the opposite pattern of most migratory birds who arrive in spring and go south for winter.
So the question that everyone wants to know on seeing this pattern is “Where do Juncos go during the summer?”
Juncos go further north during summer, as far as Alaska, Labrador & Yukon territory. They fill out the forests and breed, then come back south to wait out the warm winters (which don’t always feel quite so warm to us!)
In some places like where I am in Nova Scotia, Juncos stick around all year long, so we get to enjoy them in all seasons.
8. Juncos Are Habitat Generalists
Another fact to know about Juncos is that for much of the year they are habitat generalists.
This means while they do have a fairly strong association with coniferous trees, Juncos can be found at various times in many different types of habitats including:
- City parks
- Edges of agricultural fields.
This is distinct from birds who are habitat specialists and require very specific conditions to survive.
It means that no matter where you go, there’s a good chance you’re going to encounter juncos, so make sure you know this bird!
9. Juncos Are Fantastic Alarm Birds
Possibly my favorite thing about Juncos is all the amazing messages they tell about the forest with their alarm language.
I regularly use Junco alarms to locate cats & owls sneaking through my backyard, which helps me understand how diverse areas of the land are interconnected and used by animals.
Here’s the most common alarm sound Juncos make in the presence of cats, owls, hawks & nest robbers:
Their twittering flight calls are also very reliable indicators of human & dog activity.
They even make short little high pitched TIP! Calls when a hawk is nearby.
Their complex alarm language combined with the fact that juncos are just so darn common means they really are one of the best birds to know for learning bird language.
I have a complete online video course that goes really deep into bird language if you want to learn more.
10. Juncos Are Easily Scared By Humans (But They Can Also Be Your Friends)
Due to their extreme alertness, ground-dwelling habits & complex alarm language, Juncos are excellent teachers of awareness and sensitivity to nature.
Juncos are very sensitive to humans who violate their personal space, at times making it quite tricky to get close to juncos.
(In a previous article on animal communication, I discussed how birds like juncos express their comfort boundaries with body language & sound)
However, I’ve also found that if you show Juncos a bit of respect, they are surprisingly receptive to coming quite close and feeling comfortable with humans.
I even had a junco this recent spring & summer who seemed to seek me out whenever I stepped outside. She always seemed to find me about 5 minutes after exiting the door. Fascinating!
11. Juncos Have A Huge Population
While Juncos don’t quite live everywhere in North America, the places where they do range tend to have very high populations.
Throughout their breeding territory, you’d be hard pressed to find a single backyard or wild space that doesn’t have at least one pair of Juncos nesting and singing within ear-shot.
Winter flocks of Juncos can have dozens of birds, and this all adds up to a population in the hundreds of millions of Juncos.
Due to obvious limitations in counting birds across an entire continent, it’s hard to get an exact read on bird populations, but this puts Juncos squarely in the top 5-10 highest population birds in North America.
12. Juncos Use A Hopping Movement Style
Every songbird that spends time on the ground has their own unique way of moving that shows up in their tracks.
I’m big into animal tracking and it’s really quite amazing how much insight we can gain about different animals by studying how they move.
Some songbirds skip. Some walk.
Some are quite coordinated, and others should really stick to flying!
Juncos use a very characteristic hopping style, which along with the size and shape of their feet can confidently identify junco tracks in snow, sand & mud.
Here’s an example from my backyard during winter:
On the behavior side, it gives us fascinating insight to the inner workings of how Juncos hunt & find food.
Go Learn About Your Juncos
A big part of my passion here at nature-mentor.com is all about observing patterns in nature that often get ignored, yet in practice can provide tremendous insight about our environment.
Almost nowhere is this opportunity greater than with the Dark-Eyed Junco.
Spend some time with these sneaky little birds and I bet you’ll fall in love with them too!
mary jane says
I loved your article. I am in southwestern Pennsylvania and just started getting juncos. I think they are lovely and fascinating. There is a dogwood right outside my sunroom with feeders for all. I love to watch them in the grasses and leaves. (along with towhees also)
We just had a huge snow in March and the juncos are first to arrive. I love that they are called snowbirds. Thank you for your very informative article. Mary Jane
Laura L says
I witnessed an incredible moment between a junco and a hummingbird that has inspired me to write and illustrate a children’s book about it. In short, I witnessed a junco observing and trying to fly like a hummingbird in my back yard. It went on for several attempts by the junco until the hummingbird flew away and a couple other juncos began to call attention to his behavior. I only wish I could have caught the whole thing on video.
Thank you for your account of this common, but extraordinary bird.