The Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) is a northern bird that spends the summer on its breeding grounds across Canada, Alaska, and the mountainous regions of the western United States. In the fall it migrates south, but not as far as some birds. Instead of heading for the tropics, the Fox Sparrow spends the winter along parts of the Pacific coast or eastern half of the United States. It can often be seen in wooded or shrubby backyards in our area.
The Fox Sparrow in the East is one of our largest sparrows, measuring about seven inches in length. Because of its size, its overall rusty coloration, heavy streaking on the breast, and its bright rufous tail, it can initially be confused with a hermit thrush. But notice its thick bill (the bill of a sparrow, not a thrush) and the gray markings above its eye, on its neck and along its back. And notice the way in which it feeds. The Fox Sparrow will use both its feet simultaneously to kick up leaf litter in search of food. This comical dance may be what first alerts you to the bird’s presence. Well camouflaged among the leaf litter on the ground, the Fox Sparrow will expose itself nonetheless when it scratches about for winter sustenance. When snow covers the ground, the beauty of this bird is revealed against the stark white background. Look for it on the ground beneath your bird feeders as it takes advantage of the fallen seeds.
If you are lucky enough to have a Fox Sparrow visit your yard this season, enjoy this migrant’s short visit. Before long it will be heading back to the far north.