Monday, January 18, 2010

In the backyard... Fox Sparrow

Fox SparrowFox Sparrow, Tillamook Bay, Oregon on 17 January 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Fox Sparrows are a highly variable group of sparrows across North America. Throughout most of the North and East the Red Fox Sparrow truly is a foxy-orange striped larger sparrow with bright rusty wings and tail, and reddish-brown streaks on the breast.

In coastal Alaska and along the coast to northwestern Washington lives the very dark, and more solid chocolate-brown, Sooty Fox Sparrow, as photographed above. It has wide dark brown breast streaks that merge together on the breast. The tail is brownish, slightly rusty on the rump.

In the northern Rocky Mountains and isolated ranges in the Great Basin, lives the gray-headed Slate-colored Fox Sparrow with sparse, dark breast streaks. The tail and rump are rusty.

In California and the southern Cascades of Oregon the Fox Sparrows breeding there are also gray-headed with sparse black breast streaks and reddish-brown rump and tail. The bill on some of these is very large and wide. These are the Thick-billed Fox Sparrows.

All forms migrate southward in winter. The more northerly breeding forms leap-frog the southern breeders, wintering the farthest south. Several types of Sooty, Slate-colored, and Thick-billed Fox Sparrows winter in southern California.

Many birders, not just beginners, are not very interested in subspecies, or regional population differences. And certainly these differences can be subtle between the 16-19 races, or subspecies, of Fox Sparrows. However, with these Fox Sparrows, not only do the four groups described above look somewhat different, they also have different songs and calls. Hmm... they look different and have different calls and songs. That sounds like different species to me. Indeed, there has been talk for several years of splitting Fox Sparrow into 3 or 4 species.

In the Pacific NW, especially west of the Cascades to the coast, the Sooty Fox Sparrow is a common winter visitor. It also breeds locally on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and northward. Slate-colored Fox Sparrows breed from the Washington Cascade crest eastward through the Great Basin ranges and into the Rocky Mountains in montane manzanita scrub and creek bottoms. Thick-billed Fox Sparrows breed in the Oregon Cascades and Klamath Mountains of SW Oregon and into California. The Red Fox Sparrow is a vagrant in the Pacific NW.

The local bird most similar to Fox Sparrow is the Song Sparrow. The Song Sparrow, as previously discussed, is common and widespread in the Pacific NW and is rather rusty here, compared to elsewhere in North America. It has more prominent striping on the head than Fox Sparrow. The lower mandible of Fox Sparrow is noticeably pale, yellow or flesh-colored. The upper and lower mandibles of Song Sparrow are usually evenly dark.

To find a Sooty Fox Sparrow west of the Cascades in winter, pish persistently in heavy blackberry cover and intersperse whistled imitations of pygmy owl calls. After all the Song Sparrows have popped up excitedly and are inches from your face, a Fox Sparrow or two will likely come forward with a loud husky "chap" or "check" call.

In the Cascades of Washington, mountain ranges in the Great Basin, and Rocky Mountains, you may find the Slate-colored Fox Sparrow in summer. Look for these in brushy burns and recently replanted forests in the Cascades and especially in willow-lined creeks in mountains eastward.

In the Cascades and Klamath Mountains of Oregon, you may find the Thick-billed Fox Sparrow in summer. They have a sharp "pink" call, similar to White-crowned Sparrow. Look for brushy areas amid clear cuts or burns. Look especially for Snowbrush Ceanothus or Greenleaf Manzanita with ponderosa pine saplings. You often find these in this habitat together with Green-tailed Towhees and, interestingly, they have very similar songs!

Fox Sparrows aren't common at most bird feeders. They are ground feeders and will scratch around like towhees under your feeder, never venturing far from heavy cover. They will eat black oil sunflowers from tray feeders near the ground.