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Sutro Bird Watcher: Dark-eyed Junco

Grab Your Binoculars!

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

March and April: Early Springtime After Wet Winter Rains

Do you hear that long trill, repeated frequently? Is it impossible to see the source of that oh so familiar bird sound?

It is March so be sure to consider that the Dark-eyed Junco might be the singer. He is feeling frisky now, calling often from the outer branches in the canopy, so difficult to see from the perspective of a hiker. After years of bird watching unable to see the source of this song, I was shocked when I saw this bird, singing in plain sight on the edge of an exposed roof gutter. Doing a double take I asked myself, is that the source of the sound that I have heard for so many years as I wandered in the woods with my binoculars? Yes, indeed!

The Dark-eyed Junco is a small sparrow of the forest floor and dry meadow, found throughout North America in various seasons.

A black “hood” describes the black head and throat of the male Dark-eyed Junco. The belly is light-colored, providing great contrast to the hood particularly when the bird is in full view in the sunlight. The back is dark brown and flanks are rufous. The beak is pink. The female is similar but she has a grey hood. Throughout North America there are many regional differences in the plumage of this bird. Birds found on Mt. Sutro are of the “Oregon” race. Look at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology link below to see the plumage variations among the six populations of Dark-eyed Junco in North America. Look in the Sibley Guide to Birds to see the plumage variations that develop over the course of the birds’ first two years of life and to see an illustration of the white, lateral tail feathers that defines the Dark-eyed Junco as it flies away.

The Junco is the first bird that I was able to identify on my own with the use of a field guide before I ever purchased binoculars. I remember seeing the hooded bird, hopping on enormous slabs of granite at the edge of the forest in the Eastern Sierras when I was backpacking. Flipping through the book I was delighted to finally recognize the junco as the bird illustrated in the field guide and to see that the map of this sparrow’s range coincided with my location and the surrounding habitat. Now in San Francisco, with the Dark-eyed Junco nearby, I am often reminded of that moment of recognition on the granite long ago.

You might think that such a striking bird is easy to see during a walk in the forest. Not so. In the forest shadows, the Dark-eyed Junco, with body parts of multiple muted, handsome colors, can be cryptic, as if many birds of smaller parts are moving about in the brush. Flickering movements of feathers on the forest floor catch the eye even though it is often hard to distinguish the bird among the shadows of the twigs and shrubbery of the forest floor. In flight the retreating junco flashes white, lateral tail feathers, a characteristic that allows the beginning birder to enjoy the satisfaction of recognition.

The Rotary Meadow, a dry meadow, attracts Dark-eyed Juncos. Here it is much easier to see them hopping and foraging in the vegetation and among the rocks than in the forest. The Dark-eyed Junco flits among the ceanothus, eating its blossoms in the spring and eating its dark small fruit in the summer and fall. In neighborhoods surrounding Mt. Sutro, the Dark-eyed Junco may be seen on the ground and visiting seed birdfeeders. Come late summer and autumn, young tweed-patterned, newly fledged Dark-eyed Juncos are seen on Mt. Sutro in small groupings of three to five.

As I was saying before, the Dark-eyed Junco is a relatively familiar bird to the nature-viewing public, given its distinctive dark hood. The song of the Dark-eyed Junco is a long-ish trill that stays on one note; it is not a melodious song. The trill is a declaration of territorial ownership by the male who is advertising for a mate from a high point, usually out of the sight of a hiker. This trill starts at dawn and can be heard intermittently throughout the day. During the summer a hiker will hear gentle, almost disembodied, high-pitched, “kew” chatter and signs of argument among the Dark-eyed Juncos. These sounds give audible texture to the surrounding forest or dry meadow shrubbery.

The handsome Dark-eyed Junco is a welcome neighbor, living in the UCSF Open Space Reserve, surrounding neighborhood gardens and parks.

For more information and to hear the various songs and calls of the Black-eyed Junco, go to

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. 2000. National Audubon Society.

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