• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
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.

Yard Map Birds Eye View
Be a Better Birder Tutorial 4

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Relative Size
Smaller than a Spotted Towhee; larger than a Dark-eyed Junco.
Other Names
  • Bruant fauve (French)
  • Chingolo zorruno (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The nineteenth century naturalist William Brewster was inspired by the rich song of breeding Fox Sparrows in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. “At all hours of the day,” he wrote, “in every kind of weather late into the brief summer, 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.”
  • People have spotted individual Fox Sparrows in Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Germany, and Italy. Some of these vagrant birds probably made part of their transatlantic journey by ship, after touching down to rest on a vessel far from shore.
  • Fox Sparrow fossils from the Pleistocene (about 11,000 years ago) have been found in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and at the La Brea tar pits in California.
  • The oldest Fox Sparrow on record was at least 10 years and 4 months old. It was caught and re-released by a California bird bander in 2003.

Habitat


Forest

Fox Sparrows breed in thickets and chaparral across northern North America and south along the western mountains. Each of the four main types of Fox Sparrow (see Regional Differences) has its own preferences when it comes to vegetation. “Red” Fox Sparrows live in scrubby, brushy woods and forest edges (containing black spruce, white spruce, balsam fir, tamarack, aspen, birch, willow, and alder) from Alaska to Newfoundland, reaching into the northwestern corner of Maine. They winter in densely thicketed habitats across eastern North America, from Newfoundland to Minnesota to Texas to Florida, and in small numbers farther west. “Sooty” Fox Sparrows breed in deciduous streamside thickets (with willow and blackberry) along coastal Alaska and British Columbia from the Aleutian Islands to Washington, and winter in chaparral farther south along the Pacific Coast. “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrows breed in dense riparian thickets (of alder, water birch, willows, currants, gooseberries, and rose) from central British Columbia south to Colorado, and winter in tall chaparral from California to New Mexico. “Large-billed” Fox Sparrows nest in brushy fields at high elevations (with green-leaf manzanita, mountain whitehorn, and bush chinquapin) from western Oregon south into California and western Nevada, wintering in chaparral farther south in California. During migration, Fox Sparrows forage in the leaf litter of open hardwood forests as well as swampy thickets.

Food


Insects

Fox Sparrows forage on leaf litter and bare ground, usually under dense cover. During the breeding season they eat mainly insects—such as beetles, fly larvae, caterpillars, ants, bees, and scale insects. They find their prey with a characteristic “double-scratch” involving a hop forward and an immediate hop back, during which they simultaneously scratch both feet backwards through the leaf litter. (This foraging move is common among some sparrows and towhees.) They also eat other invertebrates (such as spiders, millipedes, and mollusks) along with seeds, fruits, or buds from plants such as strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, sedge, cinquefoil, buttonweed, serviceberry, pokeweed, red cedar, grape, witch hazel, ragweed, smartweed, and sorrel. During migration and winter, Fox Sparrows eat a more balanced mixture of plant and insect material.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.8–0.9 in
2.1–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
12–14 days
Nestling Period
9–11 days
Egg Description
Pale bluish green, with bold splotches or cloudy markings of reddish brown.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and downy.
Nest Description

Their nesting behavior is not well known, but the female probably builds the nest on her own in 2–3 days. One female completed a new nest and laid an egg between sunrise and sunset of a single day. Nests vary a lot in size, from a few inches across to more than a foot across. The outer wall is made of twigs, strips of bark, shredded wood, rotting wood, broom moss, coarse dry grass, moss, and lichens. The inner cup is often lined with fine grass, rootlets, hair from sheep, cows, or dogs, feathers, moss, and sometimes fishing line.

Nest Placement

Ground

Fox Sparrows nest on the ground or in low crotches of bushes or trees. In Newfoundland they nest in or under conifers or among the roots of upturned stumps. In western North America, they nest in chaparral under dense, shrubby vegetation.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Fox Sparrows spend much of their time hopping on the ground and scratching though leaf litter as they forage for invertebrates. They rarely make long flights during their day-to-day activities. Within one day of arriving on the breeding grounds they establish territories of up to 2.5 acres in size, and they pair off with mates within a week. Outside of the breeding season, they usually spend their time alone or in small groups, and often associate with other sparrow species. Fox Sparrows are hunted by Merlins, Steller’s Jays and probably by other predatory birds; weasels, chipmunks, and snakes prey on nests. Parents will give a metallic chip and pretend to have a broken wing to lure potential predators (including people) away from their nests.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Fox Sparrows are numerous and their populations seem to be stable according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 20 million with 92 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., 62 percent in Canada, and 5 percent breeding in Mexico. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates an 8 out of 10 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List. Human disturbance does not seem to have harmed Fox Sparrow populations, possibly because many of the birds nest in remote northern North America, where there are few direct impacts from people. However, the distribution of Fox Sparrows has probably shifted because of logging and changes to forest fire regimes in the West. Both logging and forest fires create dense, shrubby regrowth that can serve as Fox Sparrow habitat.

Credits

Range Map Help

Fox Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short- to long-distance migrant. All populations migrate, but migration distances are very variable. Fox Sparrows that nest in Alaska migrate at night to the southeastern United States (as far as Florida), regularly crossing large expanses of open water. Individuals that nest in the Sierra Nevada of California migrate short distances from high-altitude summer territories to lower elevations for winter.

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.