|Song Sparrow ("Rusty" form), Beaverton, Oregon. 21 January, 2013 by Greg Gillson.|
This discussion is less apt for Song Sparrows east of the Cascades, and does not apply to summer breeding Fox Sparrows--Thick-billed Fox Sparrows in the Oregon Cascades and southward into SW Oregon and NW California, nor the Slate-colored Fox Sparrow of the Washington Cascades, Great Basin ranges, and Rocky Mountains. [See footnote.]
Both Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow are found across the North American continent and are highly variable. Beginners are often confused by sparrows, in general. Even experienced visitors from out of the region are frequently confused, as our Song and Fox Sparrows look quite different from these species elsewhere.
The identification of sparrows requires paying special attention to and learning the names of the feather tracts on the head. [See "Advanced birding means learning the basics."]
|Fox Sparrow ("Sooty" form), Forest Grove, Oregon. 8 December 2007 by Greg Gillson.|
There are other field marks, but the marks just mentioned are easy to remember to get you started.
|Song Sparrow ("Rusty" form), Forest Grove, Oregon. 27 November 2008 by Greg Gillson.|
Across the continent, despite large variations in darkness or paleness of plumage and overall size, all Song Sparrows have the same basic face pattern.
If you compare with the Fox Sparrow photo above, you'll see that you can't easily see any patterns that you can name. The whole head is rather dark gray brown. The crown (general top of the head) is more dark brown and the sides of the head are more gray. There is some white mixed with brown on the throat, and brown and white unpatterned streaks on the lower face and ear coverts. But, again, nothing that you could name with the clear facial markings terms like in the Song Sparrow.
Both sparrows are found in dense blackberry tangles and brush. The Song Sparrow also likes wetlands and marshes; the Fox Sparrow is more common in clearcuts in the foothills, but there is complete overlap. The Rusty Song Sparrows are resident west of Cascades, though other paler forms may occur in winter. Other, slightly paler and grayer Song Sparrows breed east of the Cascades. The main bulk of wintering Sooty Fox Sparrows in the Pacific Northwest arrive in October and remain until April.
Song Sparrows respond immediately and excitedly to pishing. [For more on pishing, see "The secret to my birding success."] They fly right up to you, out in the open, often responding with their squeaky "chimp" call note. They stay with you as long as you keep pishing. Fox Sparrows, on the other hand, take a bit more coaxing. They take a while to respond. However, if you whistle a pygmy owl imitation or imitate their harsh "check" call note they usually come out into the open to respond with the same call. Again, they tend to stay in the open once they finally respond.
[Footnote: The Thick-billed and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows that summer in the Pacific NW tend to have almost entirely pale gray heads with brown marks on the ear coverts. Their wings and tail are redder than the Sooty Fox Sparrows. They arrive in April and depart in September. Their call notes are a sharp metalic "chink," similar to White-crowned Sparrow or California Towhee. Thick-billed Fox Sparrows like ceanothus and manzanita scrub among regrowing pine seedlings 5-10 years after a clearcut. Slate-colored Fox Sparrows tend to be found in damp mountain seeps and creek bottoms. Song Sparrows east of the Cascades are paler gray and brown, but the head pattern is same as the Song Sparrow described above.]