The Dark-eyed Junco, also called the snowbird, is a neat, flashy little bird that is a member of the sparrow family. It is also considered as the best-known species of the juncos, which is a genus of tiny greyish American sparrows. It is usually observed flitting about forest floors of the western mountains and Canada, and moves through the rest of North America for winter. Its most distinctive features are the crisp markings in its body and the brilliant white tail feathers that constantly flash in flight.
It is one of North America’s most common and familiar forest birds. As a matter of fact, one can easily observe Dark-eyed Juncos on woodland walks, feeder flocks, and the ground beneath them.
The Dark-eyed Junco has a medium-sized body. It has a rounded head, a tiny, stout bill, and a lengthy, clearly visible tail. It grows to a length of 5.1 to 6.9 inches and a wingspan of 7.1 to 9.8 inches. It can weigh between 0.63 to 1.06 ounces.
Although regional differences account for the variations in the color patterns of the bird’s plumages, in general, Dark-eyed Juncos exhibit dark gray or brown color. This dark coloration manifests in the bird’s head, neck, breast, back and wings.
This dark vibe is brightened by a pale pinkish bill, white belly, and white outer tail feathers that habitually flash open, especially during flight and while hopping on the ground.
The male Juncos appear to showcase darker, more visible markings than the females. The young adults, on the other hand, exhibit pale streaks that may be mistaken for vesper sparrows until they grow the adult plumage at 2 to 3 months.
Distribution and Habitat
The preferred habitat locations of Dark-eyed Junco birds are coniferous, deciduous, and mixed forests, especially in more open spaces like clearings and forest edges. Sometimes, they are found in urban parks and gardens within their range. During winter, they can be observed in open woodlands, fields, parks, roadsides, and backyards.
The typical breeding locations of Dark-eyed Junco Birds are coniferous or mixed-coniferous forests across Canada, the western United States, and in the Appalachians. Indeed, the species is quite widespread across Canada, the United States and Mexico. It has some recorded appearances in some parts of the Caribbean, and occurs once in a while as vagrant in Europe.
Also, the bird is sometimes labeled as ‘snowbird’ because it appears at the start of the winter at over most of the eastern United States, and then retreats northward again in the spring. Its summer range goes as far as the Arctic.
Dark-eyed Junco Birds primarily eat seeds as well as berries. However, they feed on insects and other invertebrates during the breeding season.
They are often seen foraging on the ground, hopping around the forest floor or checking onto lawns, in search of food. Sometimes, they would fly from the ground to catch insects mid-air. They also visit bird feeders, although they are more frequent on the ground beneath.
Considered as ‘birds of the ground’, they would jump around the bases of trees and shrubs in forests or visit lawns searching for fallen seeds. They also forage with other sparrows and bluebirds.
The males exhibit territoriality during summer, chasing off those that intrude their territories by rapid flying, joined by excited call notes.
They unconsciously produce high chip notes while foraging, or intensifying as they take short, low flights through cover. The song that they produce is a trill that closely resembles that of the chipping sparrows, although that of the Red-backed Junco Bird is more complicated. Males, specifically, produce a musical song that is made up of a fast trill, while both males and females also produce a more solemn song that consists of various whistles, trills and warbles.
They are monogamous birds. During courtship, both males and females may hop on the ground, exhibiting their white outer tail feathers. Males fan or flick open their wings and tail, hop up and down, and pick up nest material items. Females love males that exhibit more white in the tail.
The female Dark-eyed Junco chooses the nest locations, which is commonly a small cavity on a sloping ground, on a rock face, among raveled roots, beneath a fallen tree, or even under a building. She also constructs the nest with the use of open cups of twigs, rootlets, dried leaves and moss, and feathers or animal hair.
In average, the female’s clutch would have 3 to 6 eggs, which have varying colors. The incubation period for these eggs spans about 12 to 13 days. The parents feed the chicks for 1 to 2 weeks. Eventually, after 9 to 13 days, the young fledge the nest. They become independent by around 2 to 3 weeks later.
The Dark-eyed Junco Bird is classified under the ‘Least Concern’ category of the IUCN Red List. It is quite abundant and widely distributed, although according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a cumulative population decline of 41 percent has been recorded between the years 1966 and 2010.
The estimated global breeding population of the species is 200 million, with 81 percent spending some parts of the year in the United States, 65 percent in Canada, and 7 percent in Mexico. It has a 6 over 20 rating on the Continental Concern Score, and is not included on the 2012 Watch List.