Original description: Junco phaeonotus Wagler 1831
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): Arizona Junco, Junco cinereus palliatus
AOU 2 (1895): Arizona Junco, Junco phaeonotus palliatus
AOU 3 (1910): Arizona Junco, Junco phaeonotus palliatus
AOU 4 (1931): Arizona Junco, Junco phaeonotus palliatus
AOU 5 (1957):Mexican Junco, Junco phaeonotus palliatus
AOU 6 (1983): Yellow-eyed Junco, Junco phaeonotus ([phaeonotus group, Mexican Junco], [fulvescens group, Chiapas Junco], [alticola group, Guatemala Junco])
AOU 7 (1998): Yellow-eyed Junco, Junco phaeonotus ([phaeonotus group, Mexican Junco], [fulvescens group, Chiapas Junco], [alticola group, Guatemala Junco])
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
Generally common or abundant throughout its range, the Yellow-eyed Junco is quite tolerant of human activity, feeding trustingly in campgrounds and agricultural clearings. The greatest threat to local populations is fire, which can destroy or alter coniferous forest habitats, with effects on ground-nesting birds lasting years or even decades. Unlikely to cause real harm to birds in the northern portions of the range, forest fires are a greater threat to the smaller, isolated populations in Guatemala, Chiapas, Jalisco, and Guerrero.
Behavior: Apparent family groups of this species, comprising five or six individuals, are familiar scavengers in mountain parking lots, campgrounds, and picnic areas, where they shuffle and creep, fearless, beneath vehicles and tables and between and even over the feet of quiet observers. Though they are capable of the scratching kick practiced by other mid-sized sparrows, Yellow-eyed Juncos more typically pick quietly through fallen pine needles and other duff in search of seeds, small invertebrates, and sandwich crumbs. Away from such human landscapes, they feed quietly in small groups in open pine forest and on the edges of clearings. In winter, Yellow-eyed Juncos often visit bird feeders at appropriate elevations, usually single birds or pairs that arrive and depart independently of the more numerous and more obviously gregarious Dark-eyed Juncos.
When startled by humans or other potential predators, Yellow-eyed Juncos flee in rather darting flight, disappearing into dense undergrowth or the foliage of oaks or pines; more rarely, they may fly a considerable distance across a canyon or clearing.
Males sing from mid-height in trees, often taking well-concealed perches where they can be very difficult to see.
Voice: While it requires some experience to distinguish the calls of the two species (and much more to determine that an individual is giving “intermediate” calls), the song of the Yellow-eyed Junco is very different from that of the Dark-eyed Juncos breeding in the United States and Canada.
Rather than the loose, colorless trill of their relatives, male Yellow-eyeds sing a bright, varied melody including fast and slow trills and warbling or slurred phrases. Vaguely finch-like, but with the thin tone and high pitch of some wood warblers, the song is usually given from a concealed perch at mid-height in a ponderosa pine, even more misleading to the observer who has grown used to the bird’s normally terrestrial habit. Many songs begin with an introduction of two to four down-slurred notes, followed by a jumbled trill and a chattering ending: tiu tiu tiu drdeedrdee chipadee.
In other, shorter songs the introduction is faster, followed by a slower trill at a lower pitch, with no cadence, resembling a truncated House Wren’s song. The most puzzling versions, capable of confounding even the most experienced observer, are two-parted, dispensing with the trill such that a reeling introduction is followed by a higher-pitched phrase with an aggressive, rolling cadence: pleasedpleasedpleased tomeetcha!
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult Junco phaeonotus palliatus: Both webs of outermost tail feathers white or white with black markings; females show more black than males. The next two tail feathers, rectrices 5 and 4, are mixed black and white in most males, entirely or almost entirely black in most females. The central tail feathers in both sexes, rectrices 3, 2, and 1, are black. Much less white in tail of the nominate race phaeonotus. Upper tail coverts and rump pale slightly brownish gray. Back and scapulars unstreaked cinnamon-red. Primaries and outer secondaries dusky with paler gray edges; variable number of inner secondaries with dull rusty edges. Tertials dusky on inner web and tip of outer web, remainder of outer web conspicuously cinnamon-red. Greater coverts mostly gray on inner web, mostly cinnamon-red on outer web. Median and lesser coverts gray, the inner webs slightly darker and occasionally with brown tones. A very small minority show tiny white tips on greater or median coverts. Nape unstreaked pale gray.
Under tail coverts, vent, belly, and lowermost breast white with faint gray overtone, flanks slightly darker gray with hint of pinkish brown overlay. Breast very slightly darker gray, throat usually paler, matching lower underparts. No lateral throat stripe; pale gray of throat extends without interruption onto side of neck. Ear coverts darker gray, concolorous with nape.
Crown same pale gray as nape and ear coverts, rarely with sparse cinnamon-red spots or streaks. Velvety black patch covers lore, area immediately above lore, extreme front of forehead, and short supercilium.
Iris bright yellow or orange-yellow. Tarsus and toes yellowish or gray-yellow. Thick-based, rather long, sharp-pointed bill dull yellow-pink on lower mandible, dark blue-gray on most of upper mandible.
Juvenile Junco phaeonotus palliatus: Both webs of outermost tail feathers white or, more often, white with black markings; females show more black than males. The next two tail feathers, rectrices 5 and 4, are mixed black and white in most males, entirely or almost entirely black in most females. The central tail feathers in both sexes, rectrices 3, 2, and 1, are black. Upper tail coverts and rump pale gray with brown or olive tinge. Back dull cinnamon-red with extensive blackish streaks. Scapulars buffy gray with black streaks. Primaries and outer secondaries dusky with paler gray edges; variable number of inner secondaries with dull rusty edges. Tertials dusky on inner web and tip of outer web, remainder of outer web brownish red. Greater coverts mostly gray on inner web, mostly brownish red on outer web. Median and lesser coverts gray, the inner webs slightly browner. A minority show tiny buffy tips on greater or median coverts. Nape pale olive-gray with blackish streaking.
Under tail coverts, vent, belly, and lowermost breast pale gray with buffy wash. Flanks and sides of breast with blackish streaks and flecks. Gray, buffy-washed breast and throat with blackish streaking. Grayish or slaty lateral throat stripe, usually poorly defined or nearly absent. Ear coverts gray with faint black streaking.
Crown with fine blackish streaks. Black mask from lore to just behind eye, paler and more diffuse than in adult.
Iris gray to yellowish olive, adult-like by early autumn. Tarsus and toes pinkish or gray-pink. Thick-based, rather long, sharp-pointed bill dull yellowish gray on lower mandible, darker gray on most of upper mandible.
Length 141-166 mm (5.6-6.5 inches)
Wing chord 74-83 mm (2.9-3.3 inches)
Tail 62-76 mm (2.4-3.0 inches)
Mass 20 g