Dark-eyed Junco

We saw a flock of pink-sided dark-eyed juncos in Island Park the day we returned from a trip to Arizona and Texas.

There are times in life when you just have to thumb your nose to rules established by others. That was how my wife felt while sitting at a birdfeeder in Portal, Arizona. She was going for a “big month” and with three different sub-species of dark-eyed juncos right in front of us, she felt she should be able to add all three to her list. I opined that it was her list and rules established by some birding organization were really more like guidelines (thank you Captain Barbosa).

Dark-eyed juncos can really bolster a life list or a big year if all the subspecies are counted (rules be danged). Arguably, there are 15 subspecies, although considerable and lively debate continues about whether or not they should still be considered five distinct species.

Undoubtedly, you have seen juncos, lots of them, as they are one of the most abundant forest birds. Two hundred years ago, John James Audubon penned this about the dark-eyed junco, “There is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird.” They are still often referred to as snowbirds for their propensity to show up around bird feeders just about the time snow begins to fall.

With 15 sub-species, it is easy to assume that there is a lot of variability. So, how do you know if you have seen a dark-eyed junco? Start with what they all have in common. They all have darker upper parts and a lighter belly, a light-colored, pinkish bill, and white outer tail feathers that flash like banners when they fly. Dark-eyed juncos forage on the ground hunting for seeds. They hop rather than walk when on the ground and are usually in flocks of a few too many.

To further confound identification, wherever subspecies ranges overlap, there is plenty of inter-breeding going on creating even more variation. A good field guide is helpful in determining the subspecies, but good luck with the hybrids. In that case, it is just fine to call the intermediate birds just dark-eyed juncos and let it go at that.

In the 1970’s, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) combined the five dark-eyed junco species (not including the yellow-eyed junco), based on the then most current scientific data. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “The AOU then subdivided the newly created species into separate groups, each with its previous common and scientific names: Slate-colored Junco (hyemalis); White-winged Junco (aikeni); Oregon Junco (oreganus); Gray-headed Junco (caniceps); and Guadalupe Junco (insularis).” Around 2016, the endangered Guadalupe junco was returned to full species designation.

The dark-eyed junco is actually part of the new world sparrow group and between the 15 subspecies is one of the most widespread birds in North America. Populations thrive from the Arctic to Central Mexico and pretty much coast to coast. As forest birds, during the summer they are often found in more mountainous habitats, but during the winter months they can show up just about anywhere, especially around bird feeders. In fact, they are one of the most common species reported in the citizen-driven, Project Feeder Watch.

Despite being one of the most common birds in North America with an estimated population of 630 million, “the North American Breeding Bird Survey reports that populations declined by about 0.7% per year between 1966 and 2019, resulting in a cumulative decline of 31% (allaboutbirds.org).” They are frequent victims of collisions with windows and habitat loss has taken a toll as well.

I am glad my wife made an executive decision to count each of the different subspecies of dark-eyed junco we see. It makes me observe more closely and that is a good thing.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho