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Fox Sparrow - Red Subspecies

Fox Sparrow - Red Subspecies

Ed Schneider

One of the largest sparrows in North America, the fox sparrow is also one of the most varied with at least four distinct subspecies and much debate about whether they should be split into different unique species.

Common Name:

Fox Sparrow, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Thick-Billed Fox Sparrow, Red Fox Sparrow, Slate-Colored Fox Sparrow

Scientific Name:

Passerella iliaca

Scientific Family:

Emberizidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick and conical, darker above with paler or yellow color on lower mandible
  • Size: 6.5-7.5 inches long with 11-inch wingspan, round head, stocky build, long tail
  • Colors: White, black, brown, rust, gray
  • Markings: Genders are similar but there is much geographic variation for exact plumage coloration, with eastern birds more reddish or rust-colored than their western cousins. The head is typically gray but may show rust on the crown and auriculars, though the lores are frequently dark and the dark eye is set off by a thin white eye ring. Thick, dark malar patches surround the usually plain throat. The upperparts are plain brownish-gray, and faint, thin white wing bars are typical for most subspecies. The underparts are white with heavy vertical streaks made up of distinctly triangular or arrowhead-shaped spots that often coalesce into a splotch on the breast. The streaks are blurrier on the flanks. The rump is often gray or brownish-gray, and the tail frequently shows rusty red. The legs and feet are pale.

    Juveniles are similar to adults but their markings are less well-defined.

Foods:

Seeds, fruit, berries, mollusks, insects (See: Omnivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These sparrows prefer deciduous or mixed deciduous and coniferous forests where thicket-like patches are abundant, including in riparian areas, and they will stay in suburban areas where the vegetation is favorable. They can be found year-round along the Pacific coast of southern California and southern British Columbia. In summer, the fox sparrow breeds in boreal regions from Alaska stretching through Canada to Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as in appropriate habitats in the Rocky Mountains and other western mountain ranges. In winter, they are more widespread along the Pacific coast and migrate to the southeastern United States from eastern Texas to northern Florida and as far north as New Jersey and Connecticut.

Vagrant fox sparrows are regularly recorded further south than their expected range, and very rare records show them appearing in Europe.

Vocalizations:

The fox sparrow has a variable repertoire and its song includes rich, melodious whistles, trills, and "burring" or "churring" notes. The entire song lasts 2-4 seconds but can be repeated frequently, and the tempo varies throughout the song. A typical call is a short whistled "chip" note. These birds often sing during the dawn chorus but will vocalize at any time of day, and both males and females sing though females' songs are generally softer.

Behavior:

These sparrows are less social than many small birds and are most often solitary, but may join small flocks with other sparrows for winter foraging. As ground feeders, they scratch among leaves and dirt to look for seeds and insects, using both feet simultaneously with a backwards hop to expose a new area. Their flight pattern is a bobbing undulation.

Reproduction:

These are monogamous sparrows. The female partner builds a cup-shaped nest very low to the ground, typically in a shrub or under an overturned log. The nest is constructed of lichen, roots, grass, twigs, feathers and a variety of other materials, with a softer lining of grass and moss. The eggs are oval-shaped with a pale green or whitish-green color and dark splotches. Each brood typically has 2-5 eggs, and one or two broods may be laid each season.

The female parent incubates the eggs for 12-14 days, and both parents continue to feed the altricial young for 8-11 days after hatching.

Different subspecies of fox sparrows frequently interbreed where their ranges overlap, causing more confusion for identifying subspecies and determining if the species should be rightfully split.

Attracting Fox Sparrows:

These birds are most common in backyards in winter when they are more widespread in populated areas, but they can appear in suitable backyards at any time. To attract them, providing bird-friendly landscaping with a brush pile, berry-producing shrubs and seed-bearing flowers is essential, and leaving leaf litter intact will give them a safe, easy place to forage. Ground-feeding areas or spots where seed spills from feeders will also tempt fox sparrows.

Conservation:

These sparrows are not threatened or endangered, but eastern populations are slightly declining as development destroys their preferred habitats. Feral cats are another prominent threat both to adult birds as well as nests.

Similar Birds:

  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
  • Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)
  • Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)
  • Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Photo – Fox Sparrow – Red Subspecies © Ed Schneider
Photo – Fox Sparrow – Thick-Billed Subspecies © Michael Woodruff

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