Dark-eyed juncos pop up in backyards across the United States during winter months, and can be frequently watched hopping around under feeders and around the edges of shrubs and hedgerows, foraging for seeds.
But where do they nest during the breeding season? And what kind of habitat do they look for when raising their young? Keep reading to learn more.
Nesting dark-eyed juncos seek sites low to the ground, sheltered by overhanging vegetation, or entwined in tree roots or dense shrubbery. Females craft cup-shaped nests from twigs and moss, and up to three broods may be attempted in a year.
Between four and five eggs are usually laid, hatching after a 12 to 13-day incubation by the female alone. Young dark-eyed juncos grow fairly quickly and are ready to leave the nest before they are two weeks old.
For more information on site selection, nest-building, and whether dark-eyed juncos will use a nest box, please read our comprehensive guide to dark-eyed junco nesting.
A male Dark-eyed Junco with nesting material in his beak
Dark-eyed junco nest sites are typically on or close to ground level, with favored spots found in crevices, in cracks on sloping rock surfaces, under fallen tree trunks, or sheltered by a tangled mass of tree roots.
Sheltered spots are preferred, including sites that are covered by dense vegetation or overhead branches.
Sometimes dark-eyed juncos may set up home in a less-than-natural space, for example tucked in a hanging basket or a potted plant in a backyard.
Even when they have identified the perfect spot in which to nest, dark-eyed juncos will not reuse a previous nest. Nests built close to the ground are unlikely to survive in a decent enough state to reuse for a subsequent brood in the same year or a future season.
If you live within the breeding range of dark-eyed juncos – across much of central and southern Canada, and much of the north-western United States – and your backyard offers dense ground-level vegetation, there is a chance a pair of breeding juncos may choose to establish a territory there.
As ground nesters, dark-eyed juncos prefer sites that will not be disturbed by humans or their pets, so if your yard is a spot with a lot of through-traffic, it’s unlikely to attract nesting juncos.
Dark-eyed Junco fledglings inside of the ground nest
Dark-eyed juncos may build nests in artificial structures such as pot plants and hanging baskets, but nest boxes are never used.
Dark-eyed junco nests are typically found on or close to the ground, built in tangled tree roots or sheltered by a fallen trunk. It is highly unusual, yet not completely unrecorded, for nests to be built in branches of living trees, up to a height of 2.4 m (8 ft) above ground.
Nest sites chosen by dark-eyed juncos are typically on or near the ground, in the roots of trees, or tucked out of sight in shrubby vegetation.
It is not common for nests to be built that are a significant height off the ground, although occasionally hanging baskets or pot plant containers may be used.
The nest of a Dark-eyed Junco on the ground, with four unhatched eggs inside, Santa Clara County, California, USA
Dark-eyed junco nests vary according to their surroundings. Nests built directly on the ground may often be a shallow foundation of leaves, lined with a fine layer of mammal fur, ferns, and fine grasses.
Off-ground nests, in tree roots or in shrubbery, consist of a platform of plant matter, topped with a thicker cup-like shell of twigs and moss, which is finished with a soft lining of rootlets, fur and grass.
The cup nest of a dark-eyed junco measures from 7.6 to 14 cm (3 to 5.5 in) across, with an inner diameter of 6.1 to 6.6 cm (2.4 to 2.8 in) and depth of 4.1 to 7.1 cm (1.6 to 2.8 in).
Dark-eyed Junco nest appearance varies depending on if they are built on the ground, or in shrubbery and tree roots
The nesting period for dark-eyed juncos can begin as early as March. Eggs are laid around 10 days after nest-building commences, and if a third brood is attempted, the breeding season can continue until into August.
Incubation of dark-eyed junco eggs lasts for between 12 and 13 days on average. After hatching, the nesting period lasts for another 9 to 13 days until fledging occurs.
The first eggs of the breeding season are laid in spring, with March to May being the peak laying months. Second broods may be laid from June onwards, with breeding complete by August at the latest.
In winter, dark-eyed juncos roost in evergreen trees, sheltered by dense foliage. They may also rest overnight in tall grasses or brush piles close to the ground to conserve warmth.
Close up of a Dark-eyed Junco foraging for food on a spring morning
Female dark-eyed juncos find a suitable site for nesting, and begin to gather nesting material from within a couple of meters of the chosen spot. The female pulls material together, creating a rounded cup of twigs, moss, and leaves.
The lining material is collected from further afield, and added to pad the interior of the nest. From start to finish, dark-eyed junco nest construction takes between 3 and 9 days.
A platform of plant matter, such as leaves and mosses, forms a base for many dark-eyed junco nests. This layer may be absent in nests built directly on the ground.
On top of this, a neat cup-shaped outer nest is crafted, using twigs, leaves, and moss. A softer lining of animal fur or fine rootlets is added.
From site selection to nest construction, female dark-eyed juncos take sole responsibility, watched by the male who may display by offering nesting material, which is typically ignored or often discarded by the female.
Female Dark-eyed Junco with grass in its beak building a nest
Dark-eyed junco eggs are small and pale, ranging from grayish-blue to a greenish-white. Eggs are streaked with reddish-brown blotchy markings, more concentrated at the larger end.
Eggs measure from 1.7 to 2.3 cm (0.7 to 0.9 in) in length and are between 1.3 and 1.7 cm (0.5 to 0.7 in) wide, with an average mass of 2.53 g (0.1 oz).
A typical dark-eyed junco clutch contains four or five eggs, although three is not considered uncommon. Smaller clutches are frequently seen later in the season, particularly if it is a third brood.
Only female dark-eyed juncos sit on the eggs and brood the young after hatching. Males will occasionally bring food for incubating females, although females will continue to briefly leave eggs unattended during the incubation period.
Close up of Dark-eyed Junco eggs
Baby dark-eyed juncos are ready to leave the nest between 9 and 13 days after hatching. They remain in the vicinity of the nest and rely on parental support with feeding for a further 2 weeks.
On occasion, dark-eyed juncos have three broods in a year. One brood per season is most usual at higher elevations, but two and three are common elsewhere, and rare records of a fourth successful brood have been reported.
Female Dark-eyed Junco feeding a fledgling chick
If disturbed or threatened by predators, dark-eyed juncos will leave a nest site and start afresh elsewhere. Replacement clutches are not laid in a nest used previously.
When selecting a nest site, dark-eyed juncos prefer spots as close to the ground as possible. Nests may be constructed within the roots of fallen trees or in tangled, dense vegetation at ground level.
Outside of the breeding season, dark-eyed juncos do not use nests overnight. Instead, they roost in conifers, where they are sheltered from the elements by the dense foliage. An overnight shelter may also be sought under fallen tree trunks and in low vegetation close to the ground.
Dark-eyed Junco feeding on sunflower seeds
Dark-eyed juncos thrive in habitats with forest cover and plenty of low-lying shrubbery. Evergreen bushes and hedgerows offer shelter and provide seeds for which juncos readily forage. Blackberry bushes and similar plants are particularly popular.
In winter, they regularly visit backyard feeders, attracted by seed, particularly black oil sunflower seeds, scattered directly on the ground, at platform-style feeding stations or hopper feeders.
Dark-eyed juncos will also need a water source to drink from, and a shallow container on the ground will do the trick, rather than a higher or raised bird bath.
Female dark-eyed juncos brood their young for the first few days after hatching, but as time passes, they spend less time on the nest. Young juncos grow rapidly and are quickly able to regulate their own body temperature, so continued brooding is not needed.
If dark-eyed juncos nest somewhere precarious or reckless, you may be tempted to pick up the nest and move it to an alternative location.
However it’s illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to interfere with an active nest for fear of unsettling the parents and young, prompting the nest to be abandoned. The nesting period is relatively short, so it would make more sense to wait until it is no longer in use.
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