Juncos and chickadees are common birds that live primarily in the Americas. Their exceptionally confusing taxonomic groupings puzzle even veteran ornithologists - we’ll dive into that shortly!
Juncos and chickadees are also often confused with each other, so what are the differences between them?
Whilst some side-by-side comparisons of juncos and chickadees reveal clear and obvious differences, others, particularly the Black-capped chickadee and Dark-eyed junco, are similar in some ways. But here’s the thing; even within the same species, Dark-eyed juncos vary hugely in their looks. The Oregon or brown-backed group of Dark-eyed juncos bear the most similarities to Black-capped chickadees.
These birds are a confusing bunch, to say the least! Read on to discover more about juncos, chickadees and their similarities and differences.
Before we dive into the differences between juncos and chickadees, it’s important to know what each actually is - it’s not as simple as it first seems!
First off, chickadees from the genus Poecile are usually called tits in regions outside of the Americas. Any European readers may well look at some of the photos of chickadees here and instantly think ‘that looks like a tit’, but 7 of the 15 species of the genus do have chickadee in their common names and not tit.
Chickadees are birds from the genus that live in America, usually North America but also Central and South America too. Not all chickadees migrate. One of the most common species, the Black-capped chickadee, does not migrate at all.
Chickadees from Poecile were once classed with other tits, in the Parus genus, which itself was broken down into lots of different genera following a molecular analysis in 2013.
There are several tits in the same genus as the chickadees, including the Willow tit and Marsh tit, both of which live in Europe. What’s more is that some chickadees live in both Europe and America, like the Gray-headed chickadee, which is also called the Siberian tit!
The most well-known and common chickadee is the Black-capped chickadee which bears the most similarities to some juncos.
Black-capped Chickadee perched on a branch
Juncos from the genus, also called Junco, are always at the centre of some debate. Some experts say that there are 12 species of Junco and others accept just three species of junco, and that the remainder of the 12 species are split into subspecies instead of being their own species.
There is no consensus, and ornithologists are pretty likely to reshuffle the junco genus again at some point!
Currently, the most common species of junco, the Dark-eyed junco, is split into at least six groups, each with their own subspecies, totalling 15 subspecies in total. To clarify, that means that one species of birds has 15 different 'varieties'! This is not a common situation (luckily).
So, the Dark-eyed junco - which is just one species of bird - is divided into the following six groups of subspecies:
And then, some of these subspecies have their own subgroups (called monotypic and polytypic groups). The Oregon or brown-backed group, for example, is split into the following:
Many of these birds look completely different to each other despite being in the same species. The Slate-coloured dark-eyed junco has completely different colouration to the Oregon dark-eyed junco, the White-winged dark-eyed junco has different wing feathers to other juncos, and the Pink-sided junco has distinctive pinkish flanks.
With all that confusion aside, for now, let's take a look at the similarities and differences between juncos and chickadees.
Dark-eyed Junco perched on a branch
Confusion is most likely to arise between the Black-capped chickadee and some, but not all, Dark-eyed juncos. This is because Dark-eyed juncos can look strikingly different to each other despite being from the same species.
The Black-capped chickadee has a black cap, or hat, with white patches on either side and a white breast. Flanks are normally slate-grey.
Black-capped Chickadee perched on a metal post
Black-eyed juncos, as we’ve just explained, differ hugely despite being the same species. Whilst some, like the Slate-colored dark-eyed junco, do not resemble Black-capped chickadees, others, like the Oregon dark-eyed chickadee, do look similar to Black-capped chickadees. The Pink-sided dark-eyed junco also has a ‘hat’ similar to that of chickadees.
These subspecies of juncos share the same black hat, or cap, as the Black-capped chickadee and also the Mexican chickadee and Carolina chickadee. This black cap is likely responsible for the misidentification of a junco as a chickadee and vice-versa.
The main difference is that the Dark-eyed junco doesn’t possess the same white ‘bibs’ and breasts as the chickadee. The remainder of the body and wing feathers are also lighter coloured in the chickadee. Juncos are also bigger and rounder than the more slender chickadee.
Slate-colored dark-eyed junco
Juncos and chickadees are both small birds and are similarly sized. Juncos are generally more rounded and plump, whereas chickadees are slimmer in build. Once again, this does vary, as the Gray-headed dark-eyed junco is slimmer than other subspecies of Dark-eyed juncos.
Black-capped chickadee measurements
Dark-eyed junco measurements
As we can see, juncos are slightly bigger in every department, especially weight where they can weigh double the Black-capped chickadee. Lengths and wingspans are similar. Dark-eyed juncos are the heavier, more stoutly built bird, whereas Black-capped chickadees are generally slimmer.
Black-capped Chickadee taking off during the winter
There is some natural bias here, as Dark-eyed juncos cover many subspecies. This naturally boosts their numbers - there are some 15 subspecies after all!
By current estimates, there are 630 million Dark-eyed juncos in total compared to 43 million Black-capped chickadees. The populations of both of these birds are very high, and both birds are listed as species of Least Concern. But, it would certainly seem that Dark-eyed juncos vastly outnumber Black-capped chickadees.
Both Dark-eyed juncos and Black-capped chickadees are common and numerous throughout much of North America and will most definitely share many of the same habitats.
Dark-eyed Junco in flight
Chickadees are named as such because of their call which goes something like “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”. This is an alarm call.
Juncos usually have higher-pitched tick sounds and very high-pitched chips. The junco ‘click’ sound can be quite distinctive.
Many juncos migrate just short distances during winter, usually from Canada to North America. Evidence shows that most Dark-eyed juncos in the southwestern mountains and on the southern Pacific Coast of the United States are residents and do not migrate. Some may rarely find themselves as south as Mexico and Central America.
Black-capped chickadees are almost completely non-migratory, as are most chickadees. They do migrate locally, e.g. moving from the mountains to lower elevation in winter.
Chickadees look like many other slender tits in terms of their body and head shape. Their beaks are typically black
Junco heads are chunkier and more upright with small, lightly coloured pale-pink beaks.
Close up portrait of a Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Juncos live and breed in primarily coniferous forests across North America. They’re flexible with regards to elevation and can live at sea level to heights of more than 11,000 feet.
Black-capped chickadees live in both deciduous and evergreen coniferous forests and are also capable of living at reasonably high elevations. Black-capped chickadees are more specialised in living in urban environments.
Dark-eyed juncos feed primarily from the ground whereas Black-capped chickadees are often spotted feeding from the tree canopy or bushes. Juncos nest at lower heights than chickadees too, and often choose to nest on the floor underneath buildings.
Both birds are quite gregarious in the non-breeding season, but Black-capped chickadees become particularly solitary and territorial in the breeding season.
Both birds are relatively flexible omnivores. Chickadees are a big fan of garden bird feeders and love suet. They’re quite easy to attract to the garden.
The Dark-eyed junco is also a common garden bird and will also eat from bird feeders and tables, but a ground-feeding bird, they may prefer to forage seeds from the patio or lawn rather than an elevated feeder.
Close up portrait of a Black-capped Chickadee
Whilst both can be quite territorial in the breeding season, juncos and chickadees will quite peacefully feed from the same bird feeder during winter at least - so long as they’re hungry enough to eat and not chase each other away!
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