Posture and shape distinguishes male and female Dark-eyed Juncos

Backyard Bird Discoveries

While watching a small flock of juncos at my bird feeder on December 17, 2012, I noticed one particularly brownish female. Considering subspecies and watching it a little further I noticed that it seemed more active and alert, darting around quickly and holding its body more upright than the other juncos. Could this be a regional difference? Maybe some western Juncos have a previously unnoticed tendency to stand more upright? Unlikely, but worth watching more to figure out what was going on.

Pencil sketches of Dark-eyed Juncos showing female (upper) and male (lower). Differences in posture and shape are described in the text below. Original pencil sketch copyright David Sibley.

That one bird really did stand out in posture and behavior among the three or four juncos on the ground, but I realized that the others were all males. Soon another female appeared, and while it wasn’t quite as obvious as the first one, the two females still shared more posture and behavior in common with each other than they did with the males.

Watching and sketching for the next hour or so revealed consistent and fairly obvious differences. I could watch a bird with my naked eye, guess the sex, and then check plumage through the binoculars, and it worked!

A big factor is that males are generally the dominant birds. They tend to sit still and defend one spot as they feed, and will chase away a female that gets too close. The males spend a lot of time in the center of the feeding area and in a “macho” posture, crouching and looking aggressively around, while the females are flitting nervously around at the edges, alert and always ready to fly when challenged.

Besides the females’ more upright posture, more active behavior, and lower rank in the pecking order, I also noticed that they seemed to have thinner necks and a very slight crest.

The more I watched and sketched the more obvious this seemed. The males have a “ruff” of feathers on the back of the neck, smoothing the contour of the crown into the back, and looking particularly broad and “swarthy” from behind. This is enhanced by their crouching posture, but did not seem to be solely caused by that. The neck of the females is more normally proportioned, with a subtle constriction between head and body, appearing narrow when viewed from behind and leaving a sharp corner (a slight crest) on the rear crown.

In summary:

  • Females tend to stand more upright, with head held high and body higher above the ground
  • Females have thinner neck, lacking the male’s bulging neck feathers
  • Females tend to show a very slight crest, while males’ head profile is more rounded
  • Females are lower on the pecking order and are often chased by males, leading to more active and fidgety movements

This is based on just an hour of observation and about a dozen birds in one situation, but it has worked just as well here on subsequent days. It may not work so well under other circumstances, or in a different flock. There may be situations where some females are higher-ranking socially, and that would negate a lot of the behavioral differences. I will be watching for these differences in the future, and would be interested to hear of anyone else’s experience with it.


I took a few minutes of video, which is very poor quality due to the low light and snowfall, but is still helpful to show the differences described above.

16 thoughts on “Posture and shape distinguishes male and female Dark-eyed Juncos”

  1. Hi David,
    After reading this I’ve found that it works for me, but I was wondering if this works for juvie juncos too?

    1. Hi Derek, I doubt that it would work for true juveniles (streaked plumage). Watching more at my feeder here has reinforced my feeling that it’s a very “indirect” method of determining sex; more of a dominance hierarchy indication than a sexual difference, and it works because males tend to be higher in the pecking order. I suspect that in a flock of all females some would be dominant and would adopt the posture and behavior of the males I’m seeing here. The difference in neck thickness should still hold up, at least the aspects that are not simply the result of posture.

  2. David,

    Wow – I have hundreds of Junco Photos and (of course) never noticed this. I started looking through my shots and, what a surprise, there it was, time after time, just as you described! Thank you for taking the time to share!


  3. We have many juncos in the yard and I have started to look. But in the meantime we have noticed our 2 Lincoln’s Sparrows have different behavior that match the behavior described in your observations. In their 2 micro-territories in our yard one is constantly stretching their head skyward, always on alert while feeding while the other bird hunkers down. Interesting.

  4. Hi David,

    We’ve finally had juncos showing up at our feeders–pretty much the whole gamut of Western variations, including pink-sided, Oregon, and much in-between. I’ve noted the behaviors you described, and have also seen several juncos engaging in vigorous double-scratching. I took some good video of this, if you’d be interested in seeing it. It would be interesting to see if there are similar gender patterns or tendencies toweards double-scratching, i.e., if it seems more pronounced in males rather than in females.

    Best to you,

    John Rumm
    Cody, Wyoming

  5. Thanks so much for posting the video “Birds 12/29/2010”. I’ve been living in California for too long and want to move back to my native Long Island. I miss the east. I miss the textures, the light, the seasons and of course, the birds. It’s great to see my native feathered friends on this footage. Use to feed birds like this every day when I was a kid. Fed chickadees by hand, blue jays, chipmunks, squirrels…I miss them all. Could watch this footage for hours! Thanks!

  6. Interesting!

    My husband and I walked with a pair of juncos for about 1/2-hour as one foraged within feet of me on a brushy old logging road and the other watched and paced us from the edge of the forest. I assumed from the behavior that the more relaxed animal hanging out with me was a young female, and the wary watcher in the woods was male. But after reading your article I wonder if it wasn’t the other way around?

    1. Hi Julie,

      The behavior changes somewhat when breeding season begins and the birds pair off instead of being in larger mixed flocks. I think your assumption is probably correct – the bird staying closer to you was likely a female, with the male more wary, “standing guard” and keeping an eye on things.

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  8. Thanks for an interesting article! I’ve been getting into juncos lately (lots of possibilities here in northern New Mexico), and I’ll start looking for that.

    Since you updated it this year, maybe I’m not too late in wondering what you meant by “swarthy”. As far as I know, the only meaning of that word is “Having a dark complexion or color” (American Heritage Dictionary). Maybe you wanted something like “brawny” or “stocky”?

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