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Identification of Dark-eyed Junco Subspecies

For many North Americans, the Dark-eyed Juncos visiting their feeders or favorite park look very different from summertime to winter. Why? Subspecies.

Dark-eyed Junco Subspecies (Top to Bottom/Left to Right): Rocky Mountain Junco, Pink-sided Junco, White-winged Junco, Slate-colored Junco, Gray-headed Junco, Red-backed Junco, Oregon Junco
Dark-eyed Junco Subspecies (Top to Bottom/Left to Right): Rocky Mountain Junco, Pink-sided Junco, White-winged Junco, Slate-colored Junco, Gray-headed Junco, Red-backed Junco, Oregon Junco

The variety of appearances of the Dark-eyed Junco extends into the double digits. I will attempt to provide insight into identifying the various 'types' of Dark-eyed Juncos most of us in North America can expect to see.


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Have your own ID tips for Dark-eyed Juncos? Have questions about something else with juncos? Share in the comments below!


Recommended Guide for Sparrow and Junco Identification


Want to improve your sparrow and junco identification? Check out our favorite sparrow and junco identification guide, linked below. The photography and descriptions have no competition in the sparrow ID world. Some might be confused by the way this guide approaches subspecies vs species. If you use this reference, be aware that it may not match your birding lists. Regardless, it is still top-notch.


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Best Sparrow Guide:

The Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America
The best guide for identifying sparrows and juncos: The Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America
 

How many subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos are known?

Most scientists recognize fifteen subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco across North America. Many of these subspecies are indistinguishable from others in the field, so they are grouped into five subspecies groups.


Slate-colored Junco Group

This group includes three subspecies, including the "Cassiar Junco." They can be difficult to identify in the field, though there are subtle differences between the three. Continue reading below for more tips on distinguishing these Dark-eyed Junco subspecies!

  • Junco hyemalis hyemalis - Slate-colored Junco

  • Junco hyemalis carolinensis - Appalaichan Junco

  • Junco hyemalis cismontanus - Rocky Mountain or Cassiar Junco


Oregon Junco Group

This group includes eight subspecies. Many of these subspecies are difficult to distinguish from the remaining subspecies outside of their breeding ranges. In fact, there are many zones of intergradation. Distinguishing these subspecies could be difficult on the breeding grounds. Some of these subspecies may be grouped into their own separate species in the future. One of the easier juncos to separate in this group is the Pink-sided Junco, which is fairly distinct compared to many others.

  • Junco hyemalis oreganus

  • Junco hyemalis shufeldti

  • Junco hyemalis montanus

  • Junco hyemalis thurberi

  • Junco hyemalis pinosus

  • Junco hyemalis pontilis

  • Junco hyemalis townsendi

  • Junco hyemalis mearnsi - Pink-sided Junco


Gray-headed Junco Group

There are only two subspecies in this group; however, they are fairly distinct. The Gray-headed Junco is a breeder from the Rocky Mountains, and the Red-backed Junco is a resident of the mountains of the desert southwest (Texas to Arizona). There is a quick and easy trick to identify these two Dark-eyed Junco subspecies from each other. See more images below!

  • Junco hyemalis caniceps - Gray-headed Junco

  • Junco hyemalis dorsalis - Red-backed Junco


White-winged Junco Group

There is only one subspecies in this junco group, and it is the White-winged Junco. It breeds in the Black Hills region and winters across the Great Plains and the eastern Rockies.

  • Junco hyemalis aikeni - White-winged Junco


Guadalupe Junco Group

There is only one subspecies in the Guadalupe Junco group, and it is found on Guadalupe Island off Baja California.

  • Junco hyemalis insularis - Guadalupe Junco

 
Want to attract juncos? Use white millet or Nyjer seed.
bag of white millet for feeding wild birds
White millet is great to attract juncos, sparrows, and doves!
 

Identify the Slate-colored Junco

Two Slate-colored Juncos feeding on millet.
A pair of Slate-colored Juncos. Slate-colored Juncos stand out on snowy days.

The Slate-colored Junco is an obvious and dark junco with widespread breeding and wintering range. It has a dark slate grey to blackish head, breast, back, wings, and tail. The dark breast contrasts heavily with the white underparts and pinkish bill. The Slate-colored Junco has no wingbars, minimal brownish edging (females show the most), and minimal to no contrast between the hood color and body parts. The color along the flanks should also match the head and body color, which is dark grey to blackish.


Identify the White-winged Junco

A White-winged Junco stands in the snow.
White-winged Junco. White-winged Juncos can appear similar to Slate-colored Juncos from a distance, especially when the wingbars begin to wear off.

The White-winged Junco is a very localized subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco. Its range is quite limited, mainly to the Black Hills and Great Plains. It can appear superficially similar to the Slate-colored Junco. However, it is typically 2-4 shades lighter in its grey coloration, possesses wingbars, and has more diffuse coloration along the breast and flanks. Because of the lighter head and body coloration, a darker lore area that contrasts with the rest of the face is usually visible. The bill is longer and thicker than a typical Slate-colored Junco.

 

These junco photos were taken with a Sony camera.

Check out the Sony RX10 IV!

Sony RX10 IV for birds and wildlife
Our favorite superzoom camera is the Sony RX10 IV!
 

Identify the Rocky Mountain or Cassiar Junco

A Cassiar Junco hunts for birdseed in the snow.
Rocky Mountain or Cassiar Junco. The Cassiar Junco can be difficult to distinguish from some Slate-colored and Oregon Juncos.

Sibley Guides often refer to this subspecies as the Rocky Mountain Junco; however, most newer information refers to this subspecies as the Cassiar Junco. The Cassiar Junco is still considered by some not to be a distinct subspecies, but many researchers and texts list it distinctly. Those that do not agree consider it an intergrade. I will not cast my hat in with any lot; I will only provide details.


The hood of the Cassiar Junco contrasts heavily with the nape, body, and flanks. The shape at the meeting of the hood and breast sides is more concave, similar to the Oregon Junco, than convex or smooth like the Slate-colored Junco. The flanks are blurry grey to brown or even buffy. They rarely contrast as strongly as the Slate-colored Junco. They are recorded across North America; however, many of these sightings may be mistaken identity. This subspecies is most prevalent in the Rockies.


 

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Identify the Oregon Junco

An Oregon Junco eats a sunflower seed.
Oregon Junco. The Oregon Junco can vary wildly in appearance. However, adult males are quite obvious.

As noted above, there are eight subspecies in the Oregon Junco group. The majority of the subspecies look similar to the individual shown above. The other easily identified Oregon Junco subspecies is the Pink-sided Junco, seen below. The Oregon Junco has a dark hood, though some young females can have VERY light hoods. They have orange to rusty to rufous colored flanks, back, and wing coverts. The rich coloration is more extensive on the back of the Oregon Junco than the Pink-sided Junco, even in younger females. The shape of the flank coloration is also more restricted and less invasive into the breast/belly white.


Identify the Pink-sided Junco

A Pink-sided Junco sits on a branch, huddled for warmth.
Pink-sided Junco. The Pink-sided Junco is a lovely western junco, from the Oregon Junco group.

The Pink-sided Junco is a striking member of the Oregon Junco group. Its bluish hood, cinnamon-to-pinkish sides, and contrasting pink bill make it lovely to photograph. The lores of males and females contrast with the dark grey to slatey-grey hood. The colored flanks are more intrusive into the white belly than even the palest Oregon Juncos that resemble Pink-sided Juncos.

 

Sparrows and juncos often prefer the stability of a platform

Woodlink Going Green Platform bird feeder for juncos
Juncos prefer platform feeders with sunflower seed or millet.
 

Identify the Gray-headed Junco

A Gray-headed Junco is set against a green background.
Gray-headed Junco. The Gray-headed Junco is a Rocky Mountain breeder that winters in the southwest.

The Gray-headed Junco is not difficult to distinguish from most Dark-eyed Junco subspecies. In fact, the only subspecies it is likely to be mixed up with is the Red-backed Junco. Luckily, the Red-backed Junco has a dark upper bill and is lighter in the throat and breast.


Identify the Red-backed Junco

A Red-backed Junco eats birdseed scattered on the ground.
Red-backed Junco. The Red-backed Junco is restricted to the desert southwest.

The Red-backed Junco is likely only to be found in the southwestern portion of the United States. It only resembles the Gray-headed Junco, but luckily, the upper mandible of the bill is darker than the Gray-headed Junco. The gray coloration of the throat, bread, and flanks are all much lighter than the Gray-headed Junco.


Attract Dark-eyed Juncos to your yard

While most juncos will not use feeders, using proper seed types in feeders can still attract juncos to the areas below the feeders. So which seed types can attract juncos? Easy! White millet, red milo, and Nyjer seed! The Morning Song Ground Bird blend is an easy blend to use for juncos. If you dare to use a feeder to attract juncos, try a ground feeder! They may still not prefer it to the ground, but they will eventually give it a try. Additionally, plant native cover species like shrubs, bushes, and junipers to offer protective places for juncos to hide and roost.


Final Thoughts on Dark-eyed Junco Subspecies

We avoided going too deep on the variations in appearance of the Dark-eyed Junco subspecies groups. We like to find a solid base to begin our identifications from, so we started with easier-to-identify individuals. There are also intergrades from the multiples of these groups, and we will add more information for intergrades down the road. Want that additional information? Check back, as we will be updating this post with modern range maps! Be sure to subscribe, so you are notified when updates occur!


 

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