March 20 is the first day of spring in North America; it is also World Sparrow Day. To celebrate, I want to highlight a sparrow that is a favorite among many birders, the Fox Sparrow (passerella iliaca).
Fox Sparrows are diverse, with at least four different identifiable forms: red, sooty, slate-colored, and thick-billed. Each differs in coloration, structure, genetics, and song. The “Red” Fox Sparrow is the most widespread form, breeding across much of Boreal Forest in Canada and Alaska, while the other groups have more restricted ranges in western North America.
For anyone who has ever seen or heard one, it is easy to understand why they are so beloved. The “Red” Fox Sparrow is among my own favorites. As you might expect, this form has reddish upperparts, complemented by large rufous spots across the breast. This reddish coloration, together with the species' large size, makes it easy to distinguish from the many other sometimes seemingly indistinguishable sparrows, often referred to affectionately by birders as “little brown jobs” or “LBJs.”.
Fox Sparrows have a beautiful song, described by David Sibley as the "richest and most melodious of all sparrows." In the Boreal Forest of Quebec, their loud, ringing songs are a signature of the landscape, as I learned when traveling there several years back. I’ll never forget when I heard my first “Red” Fox Sparrow song and then located the individual belting it out from the top of a shrub.
Overall, 58% of the entire Fox Sparrow population breeds in the Boreal, but the “Red” Fox Sparrow is particularly dependent on the region, with its breeding range almost perfectly matching a map of North America's Boreal Forest region.
The “Red” Fox Sparrow winters in the southeastern U.S. and migrates northward through much of the eastern half of the country, so it is a bird that many people can see. While it sometimes appears at birdfeeders (or more accurately, under birdfeeders) during migration, this Boreal beauty is typically found on the ground in brushy areas, where it can often be located by its vigorous double-scratching feeding technique.
Fox Sparrows can also be heard singing on migration, so be sure to keep an ear out over the coming weeks for one passing by. Perhaps you, too, will become a member of the “Fox Sparrow Fan Club.” Happy #WorldSparrowDay!