Fox Sparrow

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Common Name: Fox Sparrow Scientific Name: Passerella iliaca

Size: 6–7.5 inches (15–19 cm)

Habitat: North America; Canada, Alaska and the western United States. Fox sparrows birds migrate on the west coast of the United States.

Fox Sparrows breed in thickets and chaparral across northern North America and south along the western mountains. Each of the four main types of Fox Sparrow has its own preferences when it comes to vegetation. “Red” Fox Sparrows live in scrubby, brushy woods and forest edges (containing black spruce, white spruce, balsam fir, tamarack, aspen, birch, willow, and alder) from Alaska to Newfoundland, reaching into the northwestern corner of Maine. They winter in densely thicketed habitats across eastern North America, from Newfoundland to Minnesota to Texas to Florida, and in small numbers farther west. “Sooty” Fox Sparrows breed in deciduous streamside thickets (with willow and blackberry) along coastal Alaska and British Columbia from the Aleutian Islands to Washington, and winter in chaparral farther south along the Pacific Coast. “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrows breed in dense riparian thickets (of alder, water birch, willows, currants, gooseberries, and rose) from central British Columbia south to Colorado, and winter in tall chaparral from California to New Mexico. “Large-billed” Fox Sparrows nest in brushy fields at high elevations (with green-leaf manzanita, mountain whitehorn, and bush chinquapin) from western Oregon south into California and western Nevada, wintering in chaparral farther south in California. During migration, Fox Sparrows forage in the leaf litter of open hardwood forests as well as swampy thickets.

Status: Least Concern. Global Population: Unknown amount of mature individuals. Fox Sparrows are numerous and their populations seem to be stable. Human disturbance does not seem to have harmed Fox Sparrow populations, possibly because many of the birds nest in remote northern North America, where there are few direct impacts from people. However, the distribution of Fox Sparrows has probably shifted because of logging and changes to forest fire regimes in the West. Both logging and forest fires create dense, shrubby regrowth that can serve as Fox Sparrow habitat.

Diet: Seeds and insects, as well as some berries. Coastal fox sparrows may also eat crustaceans. They find their prey with a characteristic “double-scratch” involving a hop forward and an immediate hop back, during which they simultaneously scratch both feet backwards through the leaf litter. (This foraging move is common among some sparrows and towhees.)

Nesting: Fox Sparrows are dark, splotchy sparrows with four main groups that can range from foxy red to gray to dark brown.

Fox sparrows nest in wooded areas across northern Canada and the west coast of North America from Alaska to California. They nest either in a sheltered location on the ground or low in trees or shrubs. Nest typically contains two to five pale green to greenish white eggs speckled with reddish browns.

Cool Facts: The nineteenth century naturalist William Brewster was inspired by the rich song of breeding Fox Sparrows in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. “At all hours of the day,” he wrote, “in every kind of weather late into the brief summer, its voice rises among the evergreen woods filling the air with quivering, delicious melody, which at length dies softly, mingling with the soughing of the wind in the spruces, or drowned by the muffled roar of the surf beating against neighboring cliffs.”

Fox Sparrow fossils from the Pleistocene (about 11,000 years ago) have been found in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and at the La Brea tar pits in California.

There are 4 Sub-species of Fox Sparrow:

  • P. i. iliaca. Red Fox Sparrow is the generally central and east coast taxa in the genus Passerella. This is the brightest colored group.
  • P. i. unalaschcensis. Sooty Fox Sparrow is the west coast taxa in the genus Passerella. It is browner and darker than the Red Fox Sparrow.
  • P. i. schistacea. Slate-colored Fox Sparrow is the Rocky Mountain taxa in the genus Passerella. It is a tiny-billed bird with a gray head and mantle, brown wings, brown breast streaks, and a russet tail.
  • P. i. megarhyncha. Thick-billed Fox Sparrow is the Sierra Nevada taxa in the genus Passerella. This group features a particularly thick bill, as its name would suggest.


Found in Songbird Remix Sparrows of the World

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