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Fox Sparrow: Field Guide, Pictures, Habitat & Info

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Fox Sparrow

Deep in the brush in a coniferous forest, the tiny fox sparrow scuttles along the leaves, hunting insects as they hop. Their appearance varies wildly by type, which is somewhat determined by their region. The classic “red” fox sparrow features the rustiest colored feathers. They have the largest habitat range from Alaska into Canada, and they winter south from Texas to Florida, although a small population may travel further west.

The “sooty” fox sparrow mostly resides in the Northwestern United States along the Pacific coast. The similar “slate-colored” fox sparrow lives in the west from British Columbia to New Mexico. Finally, the “large-billed” fox sparrow loves to nest in chaparral in California, Nevada, and Oregon. We’ll dive into the four types of fox sparrows, including their shared characteristics, and how you might see one for yourself.

hummingbird divider Fox Sparrow Characteristics & Traits

Fox Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay
Common Name: Fox Sparrow (“Red,” “Sooty,” “Slate,” or “Large-billed)
Scientific Name: Passerella iliaca
Wingspan: 10.5-11.4”
Length: 5.9-7.5”
Diet: Insects, berries, seeds
Lifespan: Approximately 10 years

All fox sparrows feast on insects during the summer. They also enjoy berries and seeds, especially during the winter when insects are harder to find. The fox sparrow is a small creature about the size of a sparrow, and it modestly shuffles along the forest floor. Unlike more aggressive birds who will shove other birds out of their way, the meek fox sparrow might not even come up to the bird feeder at all. Instead, they prefer to shuffle underneath the feeder, scrounging for fallen seeds.

Although their exact habitat depends on what’s available in their region, fox sparrows typically choose to nest in dense bushes such as berry bushes or shrubs. They may also build their home near the bottoms of trees. Tree roots are one of their favorite places to call home.

Birds of a feather may flock together, but the fox sparrow wastes no time building its own nest once the group arrives home after a long winter’s journey. They like to mostly live alone or in small groups, and females are known to construct their nest and lay an egg within the same day. Although they might not want to live with a cluster of birds all the time, the fox sparrow has an amiable nature that pairs them well with other sparrow companions. Staying in groups helps protect birds from their many predators, including bigger birds such as Merlins.

How to Spot a Fox Sparrow

Your chances of spotting a fox sparrow are much greater during the winter than in the summer months if you live in the United States, especially if you live in the Southern and Eastern regions that only harbor this bird during non-breeding season. The four different types of fox sparrows usually don’t share the same regions, but some may overlap, so you might be curious how to distinguish one type from another.

How to Identify the 4 Types of Fox Sparrows:

Red Fox Sparrow

Of the four variations, the red fox sparrow might be the first example that comes to mind. This speckled bird is the most strikingly colored with flakes of rust on its white chest. They tend to have auburn wings, and a mixture of rust and gray on their head. The red fox sparrow has a more diverse range than the other varieties, and you might even see them occasionally in the southeastern United States from November to March.

Red Fox Sparrow
Image Credit: Greg A Wilson, Shutterstock

Sooty Fox Sparrow

The “sooty” fox sparrow looks similar to the red fox sparrow except its feathers are more of a muted brown instead of rusty. Its face appears softer without the striking streaks of red, and its bill is yellow and gray instead of yellow and black. These birds like to live in the Pacific Northwest, so you might not see them at all if you live on the east coast.

Slate-Colored Fox Sparrow

With its rusty tail feathers and gray head, the “slate-colored” fox sparrow looks like a mix between the “red” fox sparrow and the “sooty” sparrow. It mostly lives near the Rocky Mountains.

slate colored fox sparrow
Image Credit: AZ Outdoor Photography, Shutterstock

Large-Billed Fox Sparrow

The “large-billed” fox sparrow has the most limited range. They look like the “slate-colored
fox sparrow, except it has a thicker bill and it typically doesn’t have rusty tail feathers. It typically stays on the west coast from Oregon to California.

Attracting Fox Sparrows

If you want to attract fox sparrows to your yard, consider planting berry bushes or putting up a bird feeder for food. These birds migrate at night, so you might want to sit in your backyard after sunset on a crisp November evening to see these birds in flight. If you’re in a region where fox sparrows spend their summer, listen for their song. Naturalist William Brewster said that 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.”


Final Thoughts

All variations of the fox sparrow share common behaviors such as eating insects from the forest floor and preferring to nest in bushes or under tree roots. However, they’re so strikingly different in appearance that some people have suggested that the fox sparrow variations should each have their own species name. For now, they’re all grouped together, and depending on where you live you might see one variety or a couple variations. Thankfully, their features are so different that you’ll likely be able to tell them apart. 

Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.