Photo: Glenn Bartley/Vireo

Fox Sparrow

Passerella iliaca

This big chunky sparrow nests in the far north and in western mountains, and many birders know it only as a migrant or winter visitor. It is usually found on the ground under dense thickets, scratching busily in the leaf-litter with both feet. On its breeding grounds, it gives a beautifully clear whistled song. The bird's name refers to the bright foxy-red color of the most eastern and northern populations, but many Fox Sparrows in the West are predominantly gray or sooty brown.
Conservation status Some counts of migrants suggest that the species has decreased in recent decades, at least in the East.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat Wooded areas, undergrowth, brush. Breeds in brushy areas including woodland edges and clearings, streamside thickets, scrubby second growth, stunted coastal forest. Winters in similar habitats, also in brushy fields, chaparral, well-vegetated suburbs and parks.
This big chunky sparrow nests in the far north and in western mountains, and many birders know it only as a migrant or winter visitor. It is usually found on the ground under dense thickets, scratching busily in the leaf-litter with both feet. On its breeding grounds, it gives a beautifully clear whistled song. The bird's name refers to the bright foxy-red color of the most eastern and northern populations, but many Fox Sparrows in the West are predominantly gray or sooty brown.
Photo Gallery
  • adult Sooty (Pacific)
  • adult Red (Taiga)
  • adult Slate-colored (Interior West)
  • adult Thick-billed (California)
  • adult Sooty (Pacific)
Feeding Behavior

Forages on ground, characteristically scratching in the soil or snow, making a little forward jump and then scratching back with both feet at once.


Eggs

2-5. Tends to lay fewer eggs in southern part of breeding range. Eggs pale green to greenish white, heavily blotched with reddish brown. Incubation is by female only, about 12-14 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 9-11 days after hatching.


Young

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 9-11 days after hatching.

Diet

Mostly seeds and insects. During breeding season, consumes many insects, including beetles, flies, true bugs, and others, also spiders and millipedes. Majority of diet at other seasons consists of seeds, mainly of weeds (such as smartweed) and grasses. Also eats some berries; in coastal areas, may feed on tiny crustaceans and other marine life on beaches. Young are fed mostly insects.


Nesting

Male sings in spring to defend nesting territory; may be aggressive toward intruders of other species as well as his own. Nest site is often on ground under dense cover of low shrubs. Sometimes nests up in shrubs or low trees, rarely more than 8' above ground. Nest (probably built by female) is open cup made of grass, weeds, moss, lined with fine dry grass. Nests built above ground usually larger and more bulky, with more twigs used in outer walls.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Typically migrates early in spring and late in fall, with peak passage in many areas during late March and early November. Migrates at night.

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Migration

Typically migrates early in spring and late in fall, with peak passage in many areas during late March and early November. Migrates at night.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A lively song that opens with 1 or more clear whistles followed by several short trills or churrs. Call a sharp chink.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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