Identification of Dark-eyed Junco Subspecies

Updated: 5 days ago

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

The variety of appearances of the Dark-eyed Junco extend into the double-digits. I will attempt to provide insight on identifying the various 'types' of Dark-eyed Juncos most of us in North America can expect to see. Make sure to subscribe to the Flock to receive updates when we add updated information to this post!

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How many subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos are known?

Most scientists recognize 15 subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco across North America. Many of these subspecies are indistinguishable from others in the field, so they are grouped into 5 subspecies groups.

Slate-colored Junco Group

This group includes 3 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 8 subspecies, including many subspecies that are difficult to distinguish from others 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 when compared to many of the 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 2 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 1 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 1 subspecies in the Guadalupe Junco group, and it is found on Guadalupe Island off Baja California.

  • Junco hyemalis insularis - Guadalupe Junco

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Identify the Slate-colored Junco

Slate-colored Junco. 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

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, has 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.

Identify the Rocky Mountain or Cassiar Junco

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 to not be a distinct subspecies, however, many researchers and texts list it distinctly. 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 to 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. They are more prevalent in the Rockies.

Identify the Oregon Junco

Oregon Junco. The Oregon Junco can vary wildly in appearance. However, adult males are quite obvious.

As noted above, there are 8 subspecies in the Oregon Junco group. The majority of the subspecies look similar to the individual shown above, however, 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 onto 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

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.

Identify the Gray-headed Junco

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

Red-backed Junco. The Red-backed Junco is restricted to the desert southwest.

The Red-backed Junco is likely to only 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.

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 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!

Want to improve your sparrow and junco identification? Check out our favorite sparrow and junco identification guide:

The Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America

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