These charming and active birds of the sparrow family are winter visitors to the Southwest, many having spent their summers in the cool mountains.
Dark-eyed Juncos were formerly considered to be separate species, such as Oregon or Slate-colored Juncos. Now they are they are seen as color variations of the same species and more or less regional in nature. Interestingly, it is possible to observe all the different forms in one flock. The slate-colored has a striking color combination of dark gray/black above, with snowy white underparts. The most common race in our area, the Gray-headed, has buffy sides, a rufous back and a grey head. Pink-sided Juncos have broad pinkish cinnamon sides, a blue-gray hood and a spot of black between the eyes and bill.
There are seven subspecies in the Oregon race alone, all with slaty black hoods, brownish to buffy backs/sides and white underparts. All Dark-eyed Juncos, whatever the race or subspecies, though, are distinguishable from other sparrows by their dark backs and wings and light unstreaked (except for juvenile birds) under parts.
The other Junco in the Southwest, the Yellow-eyed Junco, has the bright yellow eye of its name, while its bill is black on the top half, yellow on the bottom. In the US, it is native to Southeastern Arizona and the New Mexico boot heel rather than the Las Cruces area. Its arrestingly distinctive eye and beak, along with the range difference makes confusion between the two species unlikely in our immediate area.
Our yard has been graced with a tiny flock of five Dark-eyed Juncos, spanning several color variations. There is one with the black and white combination, one grayish-brown and three with buffy sides. In former years, they would spend only a few days before moving on to seedier areas, but this year they seem content to linger for the whole winter. They scratch the ground for seeds, using both feet at once, so they appear to bounce in place as they look for food. We use a seed mix with a lot of cracked corn in it and they seem to be especially fond of the smaller bits, since they can manage the size better. I have also observed them jumping up to grab the heads of ornamental grasses and then holding the stalk down with one foot while eating the seeds.
They display a definite and quite literal pecking order when it comes to claiming the best scratching spot. The black and white one (which we have taken to calling “Gentleman Junco” because of its dapper appearance, even though we don’t know its gender) doesn’t take part in the seemingly petty squabbling for scratching spots, but one member of the buffy trio will often chase the others in order to secure the best dining option. The dominant buffy will attempt to chase off other birds (usually a wasted effort) but I have also seen it go after a white-winged dove that was encroaching on its feeding area.
They drink at the saucer of water we’ve placed on the ground, instead of the fountain, preferring to stay low when possible. In motion on the ground, they hop rapidly like so many wind-up toys. When they fly, you can see one white outer feathers on each side of their spread-out tails. They are somewhat skittish when we go out into the yard and will fly to the nearest tree, keeping a wary eye on us. On the other hand, they will also come right up to our back door and look inside. Maybe they’re wondering where the cracked corn comes from.
As with all birds, providing shelter, water, and their favorite foods will encourage these sprightly visitors to call your yard their home. Enjoy them if you are fortunate enough to have them stop by!