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.


Eggs

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.

59 comments:

  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.

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  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!

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  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.-----

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

      Delete
  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!

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

      Delete
  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

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    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.

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  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.

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    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.

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

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  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!

    ReplyDelete
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    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.

      Delete
    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

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

      Delete
  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!

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

      Delete
  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.

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

      Delete
  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?

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    Replies
    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.

      Delete
  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?

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    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!

      Delete
  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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  14. On April 13th we had a dark eyes Junco mama lay four of her precious eggs in my hanging basket on the front porch. Today is April 28th and mama bird was not in the nest so I had my husband pulled the hanging pot down for me to carefully water and WOW, we have babies! I carefully and barely watered as I gazing down at these naked open mouth little birds who are moving but not making a sound...yet hahaha! Mama bird came back as the hanging pot was being placed back and did a little jig on the porch railing for us before flying up to her babies. Oddly enough, the mama bird isn't scared of me. In fact yesterday she flew down to my feet and quietly watched me as I talked to her then she proceeded to walk on the porch railing and dig around in my new flower garden before flying to her nest. Such a neat reward.

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    1. What a wonderful experience!

      Thanks for sharing.

      Delete
  15. Thanks for the wonderful article on Juncos! I work at a park and we found a nest inside a drawer in a seldom-used restroom building. We are closing the room until they fledge and were happy to learn some more about these cute little birds.

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    1. Thank you for your compliments, and sharing your junco story!

      Delete
  16. Greg, my mother and I found a black-eyed junco nest in one of our potted plants on the ground in our backyard. There were 4 newborn black-eyed juncos, with eyes still sealed shut. We were absolutely delighted!

    Now, three days later, the baby birds are all gone. We're devastated. It looks like the nest was tampered with by a predator. What could have happened to the babies? We were concerned about the location of the nest. The potted plant is a bit of an anomaly and almost directly in the middle of our backyard. It was not well hidden from other animals. We live in Southern California if that's helpful.

    We really want to protect the baby birds. How can we prevent this from happening again? Thank you, Greg!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that is sad.

      Remember, I wrote in the article: "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."

      At 3-6 eggs per nest, and 2-3 nests per year, these birds produce 6-18 eggs every year. That's maybe 30-90 eggs in an average 5-year life time.
      To keep the population stable, only 2 eggs hatch and reach adulthood to breed themselves in those 5 years, in order to exactly replace the two parents.

      If more than that are successful, then the population explodes. Less, and they become locally extinct ("extirpated" is the correct word).

      I don't think you can do anything. Parent birds learn from their mistakes. They may choose a more hidden location next time.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for your explanation. This explanation is both empathetic and rational. It really helps me put things into perspective. Thank you, Greg!

      Delete
  17. reading these comments about people and their stories about juncos trusting them, ive been feedeing mine for a minimum of two years and they dont come near, haha

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    1. That's actually probably safer for the birds, that they aren't always trusting!

      Delete
  18. Hey Greg the Junco Birds family that lived on my porch just flew away with their babies, but they left one unhatched egg in their bird nest. They haven't been back for days, and is it possible if I can hatch it manually?

    ReplyDelete
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    1. No. It is defective.

      The parents incubated is for 3 weeks, then incubated the fledglings and this egg for an additional 2 or 3 more weeks. If it hasn't hatched by now, it's never going to.

      Delete
  19. Every year we have dark eyed juncos nesting in the vines growing against a wall in the backyard. Then nests are about 5 feet off the ground. We sometimes see the fledglings hopping around on the ground, usually emerging from a hidden spot to get fed by their parents. It seems they cannot fly yet…but how did they get there from their elevated nests?

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Well, Coco, they weigh so little that they can "fall" without getting hurt. They can also hop and crawl out on the vines to the ground.

      Even those tiny stubs of wings can create a bit of lift!

      Delete
  20. We have a pair of juncos that managed to nest in our garage - is it safe move the nest to a different location? They are sweet birds, but this is not a good location for them to be. How can we discourage them from nesting in there again next season (aside from keeping the garage door closed)?

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Once the eggs hatch the parents will be more attached. You might try to move the nest then. However, it is best to just wait another 2 weeks for them to fledge on their own, if possible.

      I don't know how to make your garage less attractive to them. Can you move or make a shelf or whatever they are using in the garage to the outside? Might be a good experiment.

      They do nest in hanging baskets or potted flowers. You might try that.

      They often nest at least twice per season. So you may be able to experiment right away.

      Delete
  21. We had a Mama junco choose the wreath by our front door for her nest. It has been an amazing experience watching her hatch her eggs, then watching her and her "husband" bring the babies food all day. Then, just today, the babies learned to fly and left the nest. It has been such a beautiful and wonderful thing to see although I must admit I am sad to see them go. My question is, where do they go now? Up to now, I have known almost nothing about birds at all. Where do the parents and babies live now, while the babies are still so small? I have noticed them hanging around our Pacific Madrone in the front yard. Is it possible that the parents have been living there and now the babies are moving in? Do they have a bigger, different type of nest that they sleep in, or do they perch on a tree branch when they sleep? Sorry for all the questions. These sweet adorable birds have become such a part of my life and I really want to know where they are headed and what happens to them now. Any feedback would be appreciated. Thanks

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    1. Rachel,

      Since you have nesting juncos, you live in the northern US (or Canada) or West, possibly near mountain forests.

      If juncos are there in summer, they are around all winter, too. They like dense forest floor with ferns and the like.

      After just a few weeks out of the nest the young birds are out on their own. But juncos form into large flocks in fall and winter. They are easily attracted to your feeders.

      They just spend the night in dense bushes, they don't build a nest except to lay eggs. However, they may raise 3 batches of young each nesting season.

      Delete
  22. I am pretty sure they go way up north. They actually spend the winter in New England (I use to live in CT and had them around in winter snow and all). One a bird leaves the nest they don't come back so they are probably hanging with parents in the trees and will fly north with them.
    cindy

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  23. Here in Western WA, we had a pair of juncos make a nest in an overgrown flowerpot. Unfortunately we missed the babies fledging as we were out of town. It seems the parents have chosen to make another nest in the middle of our backyard lawn under an empty potting soil bag. We've been going around it, but we want to check up on the birds to know when they've left and we can mow again. If I peek under the bag, will they freak out or abandon the nest? We saw one egg 2 weeks ago. Thanks for this post!

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Eggs should hatch 2 weeks after laid. Once they hatch you should hear the chicks in the nest, especially when adults return. That takes 2 more weeks.

      If 2 weeks have passed and you don't hear anything, then it's safe to take a peak.

      Delete
  24. Eight days ago I started to water my hanging fuchsia basket and a junco flew out of basket. I took a peak inside and saw a tiny nest with 4 tiny eggs. Is it okay to continue watering the plant or not?

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    1. You may try around the edges. Once the eggs hatch the adults will be LESS likely to abandon the nest if disturbed.

      Delete
  25. Just found Juncos nesting inside a Sunpatiens hanging basket outside by door to kitchen. I went to turn the plant to water and Dad flew out. Then I saw nest. Fortunately it is a “self-watering” pot so I can water it from below without disturbing nest. I think they have been there about a week. Only see Dad coming and going. My patio is full of plants like fuschia, cuphea, aubitilon, salvia. Lots of bees, birds, bugs. Love your info. I am going away in a week, and I pray my “plant sitter” will be wary, of course I will leave instructions. I hope I get back before they hop out on the patio, so I can keep my dog away!

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Interesting. The female sometimes abandons the family with dad after the young are out of the nest. Then she goes and finds another male to start a second family.

      Delete
  26. They are usually ground nesters. Hopefully you can give them a safe place from dogs . The babies hatch in 2 to 3 weeks. Good luck.

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    1. You are right, Cindyanna. Then, after they hatch, it is another 2 weeks or so before they're out of the nest--well before they can fly.

      Delete
    2. Being out of the nest before they fly makes it dangerous for the little juncos due to predation. They are a favorite of mine.

      Delete
  27. I have Juncos flying back and forth from my garden to under my porch. Wondering if they might have nest under there. Not going to go look for it, but not a great place since I see the chipmunks go under there all the time. The juncos have become my favorite bird as they are keeping those cabbage worms at bay. Could not figure out what they where doing in garden as I thought they only ate seeds, then I looked up diet so they are free to roam my garden and eat the pests as I don’t use pesticides. Hoping they are collecting the insects to feed babies. They don’t seem to mind me coming and going as it is only door that I can unlock from outside. On side porch I have feeders and the juncos along with the cardinals eat the seeds on the railing and really don’t care if I am there and will fly down to eat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like you are really enjoying your birds!

      There is definitely a nest somewhere nearby, judging from that behavior.

      Delete
  28. Junco's are ground feeders (bugs, seeds, worms, etc). I had them in Connecticut and they never went on the bird feeders, just below them and ate the seeds on the ground. They are also nest on the ground. They usually head north in the summer and stick around New England in the winter. I live in florida and I have never seen one down here. I miss them. They are sweet. Good luck with them under your porch.

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    Replies
    1. From the range maps, it looks like juncos rarely get to northern Florida. Most years there are none.

      Delete
  29. I had a pair of dark eyed junco nesting in my hanging fuscia basket. There were three eggs until two days back and when we checked back today, the eggs were gone. The nest is empty. What's your best guess about what happened here? No scattered shells or disturbed appearance of the nest that would indicate any predator activity.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. My guess is a bird flew off with the eggs. Jays, crows, blackbirds, and of them or others might eat eggs.

      Delete

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--Greg--

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