Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live?

Dark-eyed Junco by ray-bilcliff

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Greg Gillson

Dark-eyed Juncos are common winter birds throughout the United States. Perhaps you’ve wondered: Where else do they live? Where do they go in summer? And, can you attract them to your yard by planting any trees or bushes?

This page is a supplement to my Overview page of the Dark-eyed Junco. The overview page leads to other more in-depth articles on identification, nesting and reproduction, foods and diet, and back to this page on range and habitat.

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the ground
Dark-eyed (Gray-headed) Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Range and seasonal movements

There are many subspecies or populations of Dark-eyed Juncos that are strongly different in coloration. In general, Eastern populations are all slate-gray above with white belly and white outer tail feathers. Western birds have black (male) or paler gray (female) heads, brown backs, pink sides and white belly and outer tail feathers. See my article on identification linked from the Overview page.

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live in summer?

Dark-eyed Juncos breed and nest throughout many areas of North America. They can be grouped into the following forms, each with a similar unique coloration and breeding areas.

Slate-colored Junco
This dark slate-gray form with white belly nests from Alaska and across Canada south to northern British Columbia and from there eastward and south to Minnesota, to Massachusetts. It breeds south in the Appalachians to Georgia. Also includes Cassiar Junco that may be a stable hybrid form between Slate-colored and Oregon Junco.

Oregon Junco
This form with black head and brown back nests from SE Alaska to Saskatchewan, then south through California to northern Baja, also to Idaho, northwestern Wyoming and western Nevada. Also includes the gray-headed Pink-sided Junco form.

White-winged Junco
This is the form living in the Black hills of South Dakota and Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska. It is dark slate-gray throughout with two white wing bars.

Gray-headed Junco
This form is pale gray throughout head, breast, sides with rusty-red back. The belly and outer tail feathers are white. It has dark eyes. They breed from the White Mountains of northeastern California, southern Idaho, south to Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. Also includes the Red-backed Junco.

Dark-eyed_Junco by Channel City Camera Club

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in Southeast United States

eBird records for June shows that Dark-eyed Juncos breed barely into northern Georgia and northern South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, western Virginia, western and southern West Virginia, and extreme northwestern Maryland.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in Northeast United States

Dark-eyed Juncos breed through the central part of Pennsylvania and across the northern parts, much of inland New York, northern Connecticut, western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Midwest United States

In the Midwest, Dark-eyed Juncos breed around Cleveland, Ohio, northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, and southwest South Dakota.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Southwest United States

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the mountains in extreme western Texas, central and northwestern New Mexico, southwestern, central, and northcentral Arizona.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Rocky Mountain States

Dark-eyed Juncos breed widely in the mountains of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.

            Dark-eyed Junco by jack-bulmer

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Juncos in the Pacific States

Dark-eyed Juncos breed widely throughout forested and mountain regions of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Junco in Alaska

Dark-eyed Juncos breed across most of Alaska north to the edge of the tundra.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Junco in Canada

Dark-eyed Juncos breed across most of Canada wherever there are trees. They are pretty much absent from Nunavut and northern Quebec and northern Labrador.

Breeding range of Dark-eyed Junco in Mexico

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in northern Baja California in the mountains of Sierra de San Pedro Martir.

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos live in winter?

Dark-eyed Juncos winter from extreme southern Canada south through all of the United States except rarely in Florida, southern Louisiana, or coastal southern Texas.

In the West, Dark-eyed Juncos winter from Alaska south to northernmost Mexico.

Fall migrant timing

Some populations are resident, perhaps only moving downslope in winter, if that. Other populations of juncos are highly migratory. The Slate-colored form migrates southward from late September to early December.

          Dark-eyed Junco by aaron-j-hill

The ecology of Dark-eyed Juncos

Juncos are found nesting in habitats consisting of openings and edges of conifer and mixed forests. They are found from sea level to 18,000 feet elevation. They breed north to the edge of the tundra. They breed in higher pine forests above the deserts of Arizona and Texas.

Up to 60% of the total population of Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the boreal forest (source). Wherever they are found, summer or winter, they need bare ground to forage for food. They do like plenty of ground cover such as ferns and small bushes under the trees or at the edge of a clearing.

Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the first species to move into clear cuts after forest harvest. They remain very common for 20 years and become a bit less so as the forest closes in. They are rarer in deep, close-canopied forests with bare floors.

Backyard trees and plants to attract Dark-eyed Juncos

In urban areas of the West these birds sometimes nest in large evergreen broad-leafed bushes or similar ornamental shrubs surrounded by lawn with scattered large trees. This can include cemeteries, city parks, business centers, large pedestrian traffic medians, or college campuses–any parklike setting. They may even nest in residential backyards of older parts of town with large established trees and landscaping.

If you live in a town in the forest, then planting some dense evergreen bushes such as azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons may convince Dark-eyed Juncos to nest. You might plant some spruce trees with branches reaching to the ground. Remember, juncos usually nest on the ground in grass and vegetation against the trunk of a tree or bush. So you don’t want to trim the bottom of the bush away from the ground or the juncos won’t nest there.

Pines, sweetgums (liquidambar), and Russian olives are mentioned as attracting juncos.

In the winter time, juncos will quickly find your bird feeders. They like the lawns and landscaped smaller bushes or short trees of backyards. Your vegetable garden will provide them with weed seeds and bare spots that they love.

If you have a flower garden you might let it go to seed. Zinnias and cosmos are mentioned by some as flowers that attract juncos after they have gone to seed.

What niche does the Dark-eyed Junco fill?

Juncos feed mostly on weed seeds and insects (especially in summer) they find on the ground. As other sparrows they hop or scratch the ground under bushes, turning over leaves to find food. They take advantage of grasses and weeds that grow after a fire in a conifer forest or logging creates a clearing.

They may thus compete for food with White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows. Nevertheless, they are often seen in winter flocks with these other sparrows.

Wrapping Up

There are many reasons why Dark-eyed Juncos are so beloved by birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike. Here are a few:

Beauty and Charm:

  • Distinctive plumage: They have a striking appearance with contrasting dark gray and white feathers, a bright white belly patch, and a dark-colored eye. Males also have a flash of white in their outer tail feathers that’s visible during flight.
  • Graceful movements: These active birds flit and hop nimbly on the ground and through brush, adding a dynamic element to their visual charm.

Accessibility and Familiarity:

  • Widespread distribution: Found across much of North America, making them accessible to many birdwatchers in different regions.
  • Year-round residents: Many populations stay put throughout the year, offering the opportunity to observe them and even build a personal connection.
  • Easy identification: Their distinctive markings and simple songs make them relatively easy to recognize, even for beginner birdwatchers.

Interesting Behavior:

  • Social interactions: Often seen foraging in small flocks, engaging in playful chases and displaying social hierarchies.
  • Adaptability: Thrive in various habitats, readily visiting bird feeders and backyards, making them engaging neighbors.
  • Resilience: Brave the cold winter months, reminding us of nature’s perseverance and adding a touch of cheer to snowy landscapes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a junco and a Dark-eyed Junco?

While commonly used interchangeably, “junco” and “Dark-eyed Junco” actually have a subtle difference in meaning:

Junco:

  • This refers to the genus Junco, which encompasses multiple species of small, sparrow-like birds.
  • These species share similar characteristics like ground-dwelling behavior, conical bills, and streaked plumage.
  • Examples of other Junco species include the Yellow-eyed Junco, Slate-colored Junco, and White-winged Junco.

Dark-eyed Junco:

  • This is the common name for one specific species within the Junco genus: Junco hyemalis.
  • It’s the most widespread and well-known Junco species across North America.
  • Its characteristic markings, featuring dark gray upperparts, a white belly, and a dark eye, distinguish it from other Juncos.

So, the key difference:

  • “Junco” is a broader term encompassing multiple species within the same genus.
  • “Dark-eyed Junco” is the specific common name for the Junco hyemalis species.

Important point:

  • When someone simply says “junco,” they are usually referring to the Dark-eyed Junco due to its prevalence.
  • However, if the discussion involves multiple Junco species or requires specific identification, using the full name “Dark-eyed Junco” clarifies which bird is being referenced.

Why do I only see juncos when it snows?

ou might be noticing Dark-eyed Juncos more frequently during snowy periods for a few key reasons, but they are actually present in your area year-round. Here’s what’s likely happening:

Camouflage and Food Availability:

  • Summer camouflage: During summer, Dark-eyed Juncos typically spend more time in dense vegetation and forests, where their gray and white plumage blends well with the leaves and branches, making them harder to spot.
  • Winter visibility: With snowfall, their habitat becomes more open and their plumage stands out against the white background, making them more conspicuous.
  • Winter food sources: In summer, juncos have various food options like insects and seeds scattered throughout their forest habitat. In winter, however, many natural food sources become scarce under snow cover.

Behavioral Shifts:

  • Flock behavior: As winter approaches, Dark-eyed Juncos often form larger flocks, searching for food more diligently. This increased activity and larger groups make them more noticeable, especially around bird feeders.
  • Backyard feeders: In winter, they readily visit backyard feeders where seeds are readily available, bringing them closer to human observation.

Overall:

  • While you might perceive them as scarce in summer, Dark-eyed Juncos are still around, simply more camouflaged and less reliant on feeders.
  • Winter makes them more visually prominent due to their habitat and behavior changes, leading to the impression that they “only appear” when it snows.

Where do dark-eyed juncos go in the summer?

Dark-eyed Juncos don’t actually go too far in the summer! Unlike some bird species that undertake long migrations, they are considered medium-distance migrants or partial migrants. This means their movement patterns vary depending on where they breed:

Northern Populations:

  • Juncos that breed in Canada and Alaska migrate southward for the winter, reaching the northern and central United States.
  • In summer, they return to their northern breeding grounds, typically arriving between mid-April and May.
  • They prefer coniferous forests, open woodlands, and shrubby areas for nesting and raising their young.

Southern Populations:

  • Juncos in the southern United States and Mexico are considered resident populations, meaning they stay in the same area year-round.
  • They might move to slightly higher elevations within their range during the warmer months, seeking cooler temperatures.
  • However, they don’t undertake long-distance migrations like their northern counterparts.

Overall:

  • The distance a Dark-eyed Junco travels depends on its breeding location.
  • Northern populations undertake journeys to reach suitable breeding grounds, while southern populations are largely year-round residents.
  • Understanding these migration patterns helps appreciate the adaptability and diverse lifestyles of these fascinating birds.

Back to the Overview page for the Dark-eyed Junco.


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