Saturday, February 22, 2020

Where do Dark-eyed Juncos like to nest?

Dark-eyed Juncos summer in forest openings in northern parts of North America and in forested mountains in the West. Up to 66% of all Dark-eyed Juncos nest in the boreal forests. In winter they move south and are found in most of the United States. They are a common feeder bird in winter.

If you have Dark-eyed Juncos in your area year round can you entice them to nest in your backyard?

Dark-eyed Juncos build an open cup nest on the ground, often in tall grass against or under a root ball or tree trunk. The nest is often hidden by overhanging vegetation such as ferns or other dense plants. They do not use nest boxes. They may, however, nest in undisturbed potted plants on the ground or even hanging pots!

This article is a supplement to my overview page on Dark-eyed Juncos. The overview page leads to other articles on Dark-eyed Juncos, including where they live, what they look like, and what they eat. This page discusses courtship, nesting and reproduction.

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco nest. Cup nest with 4 white eggs spotted with brown and hidden among grass
Dark-eyed Junco nest and eggs
Image by karchicken from Pixabay

Nesting habits and reproduction of Dark-eyed Juncos

Male juncos arrive on territory before the females. Males start singing in March and April. Males sing from a high, conspicuous perch. The males chase off other males invading their territory.

Males court the female. Then the female chooses the nest site and she builds the nest, usually concealed on the ground.

After the female lays the egg, she incubates the eggs until they hatch. Both parents feed the nestlings and continue to do so for a couple of weeks after the young leave the nest.

Juncos are monogamous during the nesting season, but may choose new mates each year. Actually, these birds are "socially monogamous." The pair stays with their one mate raise the young together. However, both birds may frequently copulate with juncos in adjoining territories.

Females that lose their mate through death quickly mate with a neighboring male who may have their own nest and young to care for. These "single moms" take care of raising their own young by themselves.

Dark-eyed Juncos usually breed for the first time when one year old. They usually produce two broods per year, sometimes three. Nest predation is very high. Eggs and young are preyed upon by rodents in the forest.

Courtship and mating

Male juncos arrive on the breeding grounds well before the females. They begin singing from tall exposed perches. They defend their territories vigorously against other male juncos. Territories may be 2-3 acres in size.

The song is a simple musical trill on one pitch.

Dark-eyed Junco pairs are formed in April. Courting males fan their wings and tails and hop up and down. They pick up moss or nesting material to present to the female. Males chirp and sing their trilled songs as they court the female.

Males of the mated pair stay quite close to the females at all times except if chasing away other male juncos from the territory.

Here is a video showing habitat and singing of a male Dark-eyed Junco on territory. (I hear lots of different birds besides the junco singing, though.)

Nest building

The female Dark-eyed Junco does most of the nest building herself. The male may help by bringing nest materials for her to add. The birds may take up to 9 days to complete the nest.

Nests are usually placed on the ground. Nests are well hidden under roots or against tree trunks. They may be covered by bushes or tufts of grass (see photo at top of page). They often have some kind of overhanging shelter over the nest.

Nests are cup-shaped and made of grasses and plant fibers. Nest material may include twigs, moss, and bark strips. The inside of the nest is lined with grass and mammal hair.

I have found conflicting information on whether juncos reuse their nests. It appears that even with successive broods in the same year, Dark-eyed Juncos usually build new nests each time. This makes sense, as a nest, especially on the ground, is likely to be infested with mites and lice and other insects after raising 3-6 nestlings. Nevertheless, juncos do, sometimes, reuse their nest.

Nest boxes

Dark-eyed Juncos will not use nest boxes. However, they may nest in large flower pots with bushy flowers or plants, including rarely hanging flower pots.

A first nesting of a junco in a nest box in Washington Sate in 2016 earned an article in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology (pdf abstract). That's how rare it is for this species (or most related New World sparrows) to nest in a box.

While juncos won't use nest boxes, you may still attract Dark-eyed Juncos to nest in your backyard. The key is allowing a bit of unkempt or natural yard.

Plant several dense spruce trees with branches near the ground. Keep the area around the trees unmanicured so that tall grass grows up. This may work to entice juncos to nest. Other dense bushes with leaves to the ground along a wooden fence may also work. Even a dense flower garden may provide nesting grounds (see video below).

Obviously, ground nesting birds need protection from cats and other predators. So if you suspect nesting in your backyard, please don't look for the nest. If you look for the nest, you will trample a path up to the nest that predators may follow. You may also step on the hidden nest yourself.


Dark-eyed Juncos lay eggs as early as March. But since they may nest up to 3 times a season, they may have eggs in the nest as late as August. They lay from 3-6 eggs, frequently 4-5. Early clutches are more likely to have more eggs, later clutches fewer.

In Oregon, nests with eggs or young were found from April 25th to early August. Lowland nesting was earlier than in the mountains (Birds of Oregon: a general reference).

In the mountains of San Diego County, Dark eyed Juncos were noted building nests as early as April 18 and feeding young as early as May 13. However, right along the coast in San Diego, birds build nests as early as February and fledge their last set of chicks in August and September (San Diego County Bird Atlas).

Eggs have a white or gray base color, often with a bluish or greenish hue. They are lightly speckled with brown, mostly on the larger end of the egg. Eggs are about 0.8 inches long.

Females alone incubate the eggs. Eggs are incubated 11-13 days before they hatch.

Here is a video of a junco nest with very young nestlings. How many babies (chicks) do you count? The mother junco has lost her tail. Toward the end of the video the father junco comes in to feed the young. He has a blacker head... and a full tail!

Young--nestlings and fledglings

Young hatch naked and helpless (altricial). The nestlings remain in the nest for 10-13 days.
Both parents feed the nestlings. Young are fed mostly insects.

Young birds leave the nest in juvenile plumage. They appear as small brown sparrows with brown streaks on the breast. The flashing white tail feathers and twittering calls quickly give away their identity. Parents accompany and feed the fledglings for about 3 weeks before they are on their own.

The juvenile plumage lasts 2 to 3 months before they molt into an adult-like plumage. Newer bird watchers aren't fooled very long by the sparrow-like plumage of juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos. They behave as adult juncos, with perhaps even more flashing of their white outer tail feathers.

Here is a video of a juvenile Dark-eyed Junco taking a bath and drying off. The pink bill and white outer tail feathers give away the identification immediately.

Back to the Overview page for Dark-eyed Junco.


  1. We live at 9200 feet in Colorado so have Junco's here throughout the summer. This past week, I've been doing a lot of work outdoors and the garage door has been open because of that. A nesting pair of Junco's discovered the open garage about a week ago and despite me being constantly in and out have tried to take up nest building; I found they had started a nest inside an open box of Splenda sitting on a shelf at the back end of the garage. We cleaned that out and closed the box, but they continue to hang around whenever the door is up.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Wayne!

    While unusual, sometimes birds find places to nest that we consider strange or "unnatural." They must feel safe in there!

  3. Hi Greg,
    I too have a cohabitation story to tell: In April a junco couple set up house & home on my screened porch! The mom built a nest on a recessed ledge (near the roof, thus out of eyesight) and soon enough was feeding her hatched chicks, along with the dad, who worked vigorously throughout every day to provide food. Every time they did so, the chicks squawked loudly, a noise I would not have recognized had I not known from where it came. Then, this past Saturday, the last chick flew out of the nest and onto the porch, where it hopped around for an hour or so while testing its wings, its parents regularly nearby to keep an eye out. At last it flew off the porch, and the newly airborne chick and the parents flew off into the woods. On Sunday my porch was strangely quiet and uneventful, and I immediately missed the junco family who had spent a month or so in quarantine with me. Then yesterday, Wednesday, the parents showed up on my porch together and flitted around for 5 or 10 minutes! I like to think that they were saying goodbye. -----What a gift.-----

    1. That is a gift... and a great story! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Update: the Junco couple has decided to re-use its nest on my porch. The female Junco is currently incubating the eggs while the male occasionally perches himself on the open porch door to vociferously click at me, undoubtedly expressing his annoyance that I am near the nest. No matter, we've all been here before (who would have thought!), and in less than a week I will be hearing the cacophony of the new brood of chicks. Amazing!

    1. How fun and amazing! Thanks for coming back to update your story.

  5. Yesterday while mowing, I had a near miss with a junco nest. I mowed right over their nest, and luckily I had the blades up high enough where it didn't get destroyed, or stepped on! But now the nest and eggs are exposed! I'm wondering if I should go out and place some long grass over top, or something to protect them from predators

    1. Oh, that's too bad! I don't know if there is anything to be done. Anything you do is likely to bring even more attention. Fortunately, juncos nest several timers per season. There is still time to raise another family if this one fails.

  6. How long does it take for juncos to lay their eggs? I found a nest in my hanging fuchsia planter with two eggs in it. The next day there was another but have not seen the mother around. I thought the nest had been abandoned at first.

    1. Good question, Mona!

      Most birds lay one egg per day in the nest until all the eggs in the clutch are laid. Only then do they incubate. That way all the eggs hatch about the same day. Chicks grow so fast--they need to be the same size to all survive, as the larger, noisier chick gets fed more.

  7. Thank you very much Greg!!! I’m really enjoying reading all the posts and the website. I’ve learned a lot!!!

  8. We have a pair of juncos who decided to nest on our front porch (on top of a small wood ledge below the roof). We’re very excited but it saddens us that the nest easily blows away! We decided to drill a small wooden platform to extend the surface area today... is there anything else we can do to help? It’s been about a week now. We noticed they’re very persistent and even though the nest blows away almost daily, they keep coming back to try again and again!

    1. Thanks for sharing your junco story, Tina!

      Can you perhaps tap a couple small nails part way in to hold back the bottom sticks from blowing away?

      They may need to learn to look for a better place! Birds learn from failure too.

    2. Hi Greg, thanks for your response! We ended up attaching a short wood border around the platform and so far so good! The nest looks pretty solid today. If anything else happens we’ll try the nails :D

    3. Good idea, Tina. Thanks for the update!

  9. We had a pair of juncos lay 4 eggs in a nest inside our geranium pot along the central coast of California in early June. 3 hatched and fledged, one egg remained after the rest fledged. We removed the nest and the unviable egg hoping the parents would build a new one in the same spot (we heard they don't reuse nests). Less than a week later they started on a new nest. There was one egg in the nest yesterday morning but no additional eggs were laid today. Should we be concerned the nest was abandoned? I thought they lay one egg each day. Thanks!

    1. I'd give it a couple more days. They may be back.

  10. So it is 10 degrees out tonight. We have a junco that eats seed on our deck during the day. Should we move him into the garage for this polar chillif we can get him into a bird cage we have.

    1. Nope. The juncos will be just fine. The stress of capture may be worse than the stress of cold weather.

  11. Loved your info ane videos. We have lots of them in our yard Woodstock CT...they are so tiny and quick. They were ground feeders..rarely went to the big birdfeeder. They were there inthe coldest months leave for North by april and May. I also go to northern Vermont woods to hear my favorite songster the Hermit Thrush...another ground nester. THANKS SO MUCH...HAVE YOU DONE A BLOG ON HERMIT THRUSH?

    1. Thanks for sharing, Cindyanna.

      You may find the juncos in your mountain woods in summer.

      Oh, the song of Hermit Thrush is so amazing and ethereal! I love to hear them sing in the mountain forests in summer.

      I've not written about them in this blog. But I have mentioned them or shown their photos in a couple of my personal blogs over the years.

  12. Yesterday I found a junco nesting in a large wreath that hangs on my front door here in San Jose, CA. Needless to say, I cannot use my front door now since opening it brings a highly agitated bird, nest and egg(s) several feet into my living room. The little bird is adorable in my wreath but it is also extremely inconvenient. How long does the process from junco egg to fledge take? and how common is this?

    1. How wonderful!

      In general, 3 weeks from laying to hatching. 3 more weeks to fledging.

      You should have your door back by June... unless they decide to lay a second clutch!

  13. I too have a junco nest on my front porch, on a beam where it meets the roof. But I find funny is that my 12 year old Yorkie likes to sit on his little bed on the front porch and watch people in cars drive by. He doesn't bark at the juncos and they don't mind him at all. Anytime I walk out the door however, Mama bird flies out of the nest and calls for Daddy bird to come investigate.


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