The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is one of the most widespread feeder birds in North America, and one of the most diverse. With several distinct plumage variations, these birds can easily be confused as different species, particularly when birds in overlapping ranges create hybrids. Understanding the key field marks and appropriate range for each bird can help you easily identify and appreciate the different juncos at your feeders.
The slate-colored dark-eyed junco is the only variation commonly found in the east, ranging from the East Coast to, but not including, the Rocky Mountain region. Slate-colored juncos can also be found throughout Canada and Alaska.
This bird is easily recognized by its solid gray head, neck, back, and wings contrasting with a boldly white lower chest and abdomen. The bill is pale but may show a dark tip, and lighter gray females may show a faint brown wash over their back and wings.
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The white-winged dark-eyed junco is easily confused with the slate-colored since the plumage is remarkably similar between the two variations. The white-winged birds are usually a bit lighter, however, and may show a faint dark mask or hood. The key field mark for this junco is its pair of ragged white wing bars and the white streaks it shows in the wings. This variation may also show more white in the tail, especially when perched.
The range for the white-winged junco extends from the western Black Hills region of South Dakota through western Nebraska and eastern Colorado and Wyoming. Males may spend all winter in the northern part of the range, while females and younger males migrate south during the coldest months.Continue to 2 of 7 below.
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The Oregon dark-eyed junco is the most widespread western plumage variation of the species. These birds are easily recognized by their black or dark gray hood contrasting with a rusty brown back and flanks, white lower chest and abdomen and gray- or black-streaked wings. The bill is a pale ivory or pink with a small black tip.
This type of dark-eyed junco can be found from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast and as far north as the southern edge of Alaska. Populations may extend as far east as the western portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.Continue to 3 of 7 below.
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The pink-sided junco is very similar to the Oregon junco, but with some marked differences. Its hood is notably lighter gray, and a faint dark mask can often be seen extending from the bill to the eyes. These birds have an extensive pinkish brown wash on the flanks, usually extending deeper onto the chest than the Oregon junco’s darker flank coloration.
The pink-sided junco can be found in the western mountainous regions, with nesting areas in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Its wintering grounds are further south, including Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and western Texas. At any time of year, however, pink-sided juncos may be found between those two extremes of their range.Continue to 4 of 7 below.
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The red-backed junco is one of the rarest plumage variations of the dark-eyed junco, and it is the only one with a fully dark bill. The birds have a gray head with a black mask from the bill to the eyes, a white throat, pale white or light gray chest, abdomen and flanks, and a bold reddish-brown back.
This type of dark-eyed junco has the most restricted range of any of the variations, and it is only found in southern and central Arizona and New Mexico, as well as western Texas.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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Very similar to the red-backed junco, the gray-headed junco has the same type of gray coloration with a black mask, reddish brown back, and gray sides. To distinguish this bird from the red-backed junco, look for the gray throat, gray abdomen, flanks, and chest, as well as the much paler bill.
Gray-headed juncos can be found during the summer in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and during the winter in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Small populations may also extend as far as California and western Texas.Continue to 6 of 7 below.
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The yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus) is not considered the same species as dark-eyed juncos, but its plumage is remarkably similar to the red-backed and gray-headed variations. These birds have a gray head with the same dark mask between the bill and eyes, paler gray throat, chest and sides, and a strong reddish-brown patch on the upper back with color extending into the gray wings. The upper mandible of the bill is dark, and the eyes are a bright, piercing yellow.
Yellow-eyed juncos are found primarily in central Mexico, though they can stray as far north as the southernmost parts of New Mexico and Arizona.Continue to 7 of 7 below.
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Despite their plumage differences, juncos share similar habits and food preferences. They will readily come to feeders for small seeds, and white proso millet is their seed of choice when it is offered on the ground or in low platform feeders. Other foods that juncos prefer include sunflower seeds, nut hearts, and even suet occasionally. They will often form small mixed flocks with other sparrows, nuthatches, and chickadees, creating a wide variety of avian life at your winter feeders.