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.
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.
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.