Dark-eyed Junco The Snowbirds Nesting, Feeding, Mating Habits

The Dark-eyed Junco, commonly called the snowbird species because of its sudden appearance around winter bird feeding stations, is a member of the sparrow family.

Another reason they're called snowbirds is that their backs are like the gray sky of winter and their breast is white like snow.

By October, I see the first few Junco birds arriving at my feeders. A sure sign of the winter to come.

It was first thought that there were five different species of this bird. We'll discuss the five below.

Dark-eyed Junco Snowbird

Dark-eyed Junco (Snowbird)

Today, they are all classified as one species, the Dark-eyed Junco.

Often the most abundant bird at the bird feeders, but by mid-March for most of us East of the Rockies, Juncos disappear migrating north.

I know Spring has arrived when I no longer see any of these little birds under my feeders.

Dark-eyed Junco Call

The Former Five Species - Descriptions

Junco birds are about 5 to 6 1/2 inches long. The bill is pinkish and the eyes are dark.

Juncos vary geographically. The eastern "Slate-colored" race is uniformly dark gray or brownish gray depending on whether it is male or female.

The western "Oregon" race has a black (male) or gray (female) hood and a brown back.

The western "Pink-sided" race has a gray head and pinkish sides.

The "Gray-headed" race of the southern Rockies and Southwest is light gray with a reddish-brown back.

The "White-winged" race of north-central states has white on the tail and usually white wing bars.

Dark-eyed Junco Range Map

Juncos Range Map

Mating Habits of Juncos

Juncos are monogamous (one male to one female) and will defend their territory during the nesting and breeding season.

Where their ranges overlap, the different races interbreed freely and all are called Dark-eye Juncos.

baby juncos in nest

Baby Dark-eyed Junco in Nest

The mating rituals are similar to other birds. A male will approach a female and bow and do a wing quiver.

He also fans his tail in a display to attract the female.

Chases occur and eventually, the female will pick the male she decides is best.

Males are very aggressive in defending their territories from other males.

While pairs stay together for the breeding season, they do not mate for life.

Dark-eyed Junco Oregon Race

Nesting Habits Where They Nest Breeding Season

By April, Dark-eyed Juncos move from their wintering grounds to head north into Canada to claim their nesting territories.

The female builds and places her nest in a variety of places. On the ground, under a fallen tree, in hanging baskets, and even in an old Robin nest.

The nest is cup-shaped and built using grasses, moss, and twigs. She lines the inside with finer grasses, rootlets, and hair.

female junco brooding young in nest

Female Junco Broods Young

Nests of the Dark-eye Junco experience high predation since they often nest on the ground.

The breeding season begins in April and goes through the end of June. Exceptions exist, due to predation of first nesting attempts.

The female lays 3 to 6 gray or pale bluish eggs with dark blotches. Eggs can vary quite a lot.

For most, incubation begins the night before the last egg is laid.

The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days and the young will leave the nest in 10 to 13 days after hatching.

Dark-eyed Junco Nesting Stats
Dark-eyed Junco Nesting Stats
Eggs 3 - 6
Incubation 12 - 13 days
Nestling Phase 10 - 13 days
Broods 1 - 2

Most of us east of the Rockies never get to see these birds during the breeding season as they move much further North into Canada.

Juncos also breed at higher altitudes in the Rockies and can be found year-round in the west.

See the range map above for when you can see them in your area.

Nest may be used for second broods. 1 - 2 broods are raised each season.

Feeding Habits - What Juncos Birds Eat

Dark-eyed Juncos feed mostly on the ground, eating weed and grass seeds in the wild. In summer, they eat seeds and insects.

Attracting Juncos to your feeders is as easy as scattering some finely cracked corn or millet seed on a tray feeder.

A tray feeder keeps the seed off the ground. Seed tossed on the ground can gather moisture, causing it to spoil.

This can be harmful to any bird that eats the spoiled seed.

A Heated Birdbath can help provide these and any other birds in your backyard. The nice thing about the heated baths is you can use them all year.

Video of Slate-colored Junco

Interesting Dark-eyed Junco Behavior

These small birds have an interesting wintering behavior. Males will winter farther North than females. Younger males will winter farther north than older males.

male and female junco feed young at nest

Male and Female Junco Feed Young

The understanding of this behavior is that young males winter closer to the breeding grounds to claim territory before mature males arrive.

Since females do not claim territory, they can winter farther south.

Fun Fact about Junco Birds

Not only are these birds common at bird feeders in winter, but they are also the most common bird in America. Estimates are over 600 million of these sweet snowbirds.

Check out our Bird Seed Chart to see all of what these birds will eat.

You Might Enjoy Reading About Our Other Native Sparrows

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