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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Fox Sparrow

Passerella iliaca ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Typically seen sending up a spray of leaf litter as they kick around in search of food, Fox Sparrows are dark, splotchy sparrows of dense thickets. Named for the rich red hues that many Fox Sparrows wear, this species is nevertheless one of our most variable birds, with four main groups that can range from foxy red to gray to dark brown. Since they breed primarily in remote areas, many people see them in winter when the birds move into backyard thickets.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Fox Sparrows are large, round-bodied sparrows with stout bills and medium-length tails.

  • Color Pattern

    Though highly variable (see “Regional Differences”), Fox Sparrows are generally rust-brown above with a mix of rust and gray on the head, and heavy brownish splotches on the flanks and the center of the chest. The bill can range from yellowish to dark gray.

  • Behavior

    Fox Sparrows spend a lot of time on the ground, using their sturdy legs to kick away leaf litter in search of insects and seeds. They rarely venture far from cover, and they frequently associate with other sparrows. In spring and summer, listen for Fox Sparrows’ sweet, whistled song from scrub or forest; also, pay attention for a sharp smack call.

  • Habitat

    Fox Sparrows breed in coniferous forest and dense mountain scrub. They spend winters in scrubby habitat and forest, when they are most likely to be seen kicking around under backyard bird feeders.

Range Map Help

Fox Sparrow Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult (Red)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Red)
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Rounded head
    • Eastern subspecies is mostly brick red with gray patterning on the face
    • Heavily streaked breast with large "clump" of spotting at center
    • © Gary Tyson, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, March 2011
  • Adult (Sooty)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Sooty)
    • Large, heavy-bodied sparrow
    • Rounded head
    • Pacific coast birds are dark gray/brown overall
    • Dense spotting on breast
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Coyote Hills, Fremont, California, November 2009
  • Adult (Red)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Red)
    • Heavy-bodied and round-headed sparrow
    • Eastern birds are reddish overall with gray on face and shoulders
    • Dense reddish streaking on breast and flanks
    • Reddish coloration brightest on rump and tail
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth , Minnesota, April 2011
  • Adult (Slate-colored)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Slate-colored)
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Interior West subspecies shows gray head and back, contrasting with reddish wings and tail
    • Dense streaking on breast
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Colorado, April 2012
  • Adult (Red)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Red)
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Eastern subspecies is mostly brick-red overall
    • Thick reddish streaks on flanks
    • Faint white wing-bars
    • © Kelly Azar, Exton Park, Pennsylvania, February 2011
  • Adult (Sooty)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Sooty)
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Rounded head
    • Sooty Pacific subspecies is solid dark gray/brown overall
    • Dense spotting on breast and flanks
    • © Ken Phenicle Jr., Pescadero, California, January 2012
  • Adult (Slate-colored)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Slate-colored)
    • Stocky, heavy-bodied sparrow
    • Rounded head
    • Interior West subspecies shows gray head and shoulders, with reddish wings and tail
    • Dense spotting on breast, with central "clump"
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Alberta, Canada, July 2003
  • Adult (Red)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Red)
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Rounded head
    • Eastern subspecies is mostly brick red, with gray on face
    • Dense streaking on breast and flanks, with large spot on central breast
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth, Minnesota, April 2011
  • Adult (Sooty)

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult (Sooty)
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Round-headed
    • Pacific coast "Sooty" subspecies is mostly dark brown/gray overall
    • Dense streaking and spotting on breast
    • © Ernest Gaudreau , Botanical Gardens, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, October 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Song Sparrow

    Adult
    • Smaller and thinner-billed than Fox Sparrow
    • Crisp streaking on underparts instead of "blotchy" markings
    • Does not scratch around in leaf litter on the ground
    • © Ed Schneider, White Creek, Tennessee, October 2008
  • Adult (Eastern)

    Savannah Sparrow

    Adult (Eastern)
    • Paler and smaller than Fox Sparrow
    • Yellow spot on lores usually visible
    • Typically found in open, not wooded/brushy habitat
    • © Andy Jordan, Paul Rushing/Chain of Lakes Park, Harris County, Texas, November 2011

Similar Species

Song Sparrows have thinner bills and tend to be less blotchy on the head and flanks than Fox Sparrows. Both species vary in appearance across North America, and they are most similar in the coastal Northwest. Even there, Song Sparrows tend to be more clearly streaked than the blotchy, heavily spotted Fox Sparrow. Song Sparrows do not habitually scratch in the leaf litter to find food, as Fox Sparrows do. Savannah Sparrows are always paler and smaller than Fox Sparrows, and are usually found in open rather than brushy habitats.

Regional Differences

Fox Sparrows vary greatly across their range. “Red” Fox Sparrows, widely distributed across the boreal forest of northern North America, are rusty above with some pale gray on the head and rufous splotches on the underparts. The “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrow of the mountains of the Interior West is small-billed and dull gray above with brownish splotches below. The range-restricted “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains looks like a “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrow but has a very large, chunky bill. “Sooty” Fox Sparrows along the Pacific Coast are very dark brown above.

Backyard Tips

Fox Sparrows tend to feed on the ground close to dense vegetation. They enjoy small seeds and many kinds of berries. They may scratch for fallen seeds underneath bird feeders, particularly if they are close to cover. Encouraging shrubs or berry bushes to grow at the edges of your yard, or keeping a brush pile, are good ways to provide places for Fox Sparrows to forage.

Find This Bird

Fox Sparrows are common but retiring birds, so you may have to look carefully to spot one scratching in the leaf litter under a streamside thicket or forest edge tangle. Check a range map to know when you’re likely to see one (wintertime over much of the East and the southern Pacific Coast; summertime in Alaska, Canada, and western mountains). During the summer, in the appropriate habitat, you may hear a male singing his rich, whistling song; in winter look for them on the ground under bird feeders.