A familiar sparrow-sized bird, with a presence across North America, the dark-eyed junco’s (Junco hyemalis) plumage varies greatly according to geographical location. Males and females have different colored plumages, with females typically having less vivid markings.
To learn more about the differences and how to identify female dark-eyed juncos, please keep reading!
True to their name, female dark-eyed juncos have the same dark eyes as males of the species, but are otherwise more gray and “washed-out” in appearance compared to their male counterparts.
In male dark-eyed juncos there is considerable variation in coloring of birds resident across different parts of North America. For females, this is also true, although females tend to be more gray-brown, and less conspicuous.
Due to the wide variation in species, dark-eyed juncos were once considered to be five individual species, but have since been grouped together as one.
Keep reading as we unravel the differences between male and female dark-eyed juncos and offer tips on how to get a positive ID on these ground-feeding gray sparrows.
Female Dark-eyed Juncos do vary sightly, but they are generally more gray and appear 'washed out' when compared to males
Dark-eyed juncos are sexually dimorphic, with males displaying a more distinctive appearance than females, with brighter, deeper markings. In certain parts of the U.S., for example, in Oregon, males may have a black hood, while females are similar but significantly paler and more gray.
Other variations include gray-headed, rufous-backed males, present in the southern Rockies, again with a similar but less vibrant plumage seen in female dark-eyed juncos from this region.
In slate-gray juncos in the north and eastern U.S. and Canada, males are a dark, charcoal gray with a white belly, while females are paler and have more brownish-gray coloring on their backs and crowns.
Male Dark-eyed Junco - Slate-colored subspecies
Female Dark-eyed Junco - Slate-colored subspecies
Sparrow-sized birds with pink conical bills, rounded heads and longish tails, female dark-eyed juncos have gray heads, necks, and breasts, gray or brown backs and wings, a white belly, and a white tail flash.
The coloring of female dark-eyed juncos is described as muted and “washed out” in appearance, in comparison to that of the male.
While the plumage of male dark eyed-juncos can be grouped into around 15 different variations according to geographical location, females also vary from region to region, with the most widespread north and eastern populations being a uniform gray-brown, with white underparts.
Female dark-eyed juncos have less rounded heads than males, and a slight crest may be visible.
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon Group, female) foraging on the ground
There is no recorded difference in size between male and female dark-eyed juncos. Both sexes are 13 to 17.5 cm (5.1 to 6.9 in) long, with a wingspan of 18 to 25 cm (7.1 to 9.8 in), and a body mass of between 18 and 30 g (0.63 to 1.06 oz). Female dark-eyed juncos are observed to have slightly thinner necks than males.
Posture and activity is a key way of distinguishing between male and female dark-eyed juncos. Males tend to be actively territorial, defending their nest site with loud song and a crouching posture, holding their wings and bodies lower to the ground.
On the other hand, female dark-eyed juncos tend to stand in more of an upright pose, with their heads held higher off the ground. Females are noticeably more wary and timid than males, and display somewhat agitated, edgy behavior, as if in a constant state of alert.
Males dominate at feeding sites, posturing with their wings low to the ground and asserting their authority and status. Female dark-eyed juncos are observed to be more timid when feeding, sticking to the edges of a spot, and remaining alert and ready to fly off if their presence is challenged.
Most dark-eyed juncos across North America are migratory, and tracking of banded birds shows that females tend to travel further to their wintering grounds than males.
Male Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)
One clear way to tell the difference between a male and female dark-eyed junco is to listen out for their singing and vocalizations.
From site selection to construction, female dark-eyed juncos take sole charge of nest building, with limited interaction from her mate.
Males may present grass and moss to the female, but this is mostly ignored as the female works alone to perfect the crafting of the cup-shaped depression.
Only female dark-eyed juncos incubate eggs. Males do not develop a brood patch and take no role in brooding eggs or young. However, males will assist females in nest sanitizing, removing the fecal sacs from the nest once the eggs have hatched.
Both parents bring insects to the hatchlings, and initially continue to care for the young once they have left the nest.
Female Dark-eyed Juncos generally appear lighter, or more washed out, then their male counterparts
Females brood young alone, but continue to leave the nest to forage for food, and continue to bring food to the nest when the young hatch.
Male dark-eyed juncos act as protectors of the nest site, remaining alert to threats from predators. Without their presence, females would have a difficult – although not entirely impossible – job to successfully raise young.
There are many variations in color of both male and female dark-eyed juncos across their range throughout North America. Female plumage typically consists of various subdued shades of grayish-brown, mirroring the richer tones seen in males.
Female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) perched on snow covered fence
A short, sharp ‘kew’ call is made by both male and female dark-eyed juncos in flight, and by females prior to mating.
A distinctive trilling song associated with male dark-eyed juncos is not made by females of the species. However, female dark-eyed juncos do sing a softer, warbling song, which sounds similar to the song of an American goldfinch.
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