Fox Sparrow

Passerella iliaca

fox_sparrow.jpg

Image of a fox sparrow
MDC Staff
Family

Emberizidae (sparrows, longspurs, buntings) in the order Passeriformes

Description

The fox sparrow is large, with a stocky, round body and a rounded head. Adult upperparts have rich reddish streaks, with varying amounts of gray on the eyebrow and nape of neck. Upper tail surface distinct rusty red. White eye ring. Underparts are heavily streaked with a reddish color, often concentrating as a spot in the central breast; usually, some of the streaks look like inverted Vs. Very musical for a sparrow, its song is loud and beautiful, with several clear introductory whistles followed by quick trills and buzzes, the whole song lasting only a few seconds. The call is variable.

Similar species: Song sparrows have a more orderly pattern on the upperparts, looking less patchy than the fox sparrow; they are also smaller, less reddish, and don't typically scratch on the ground with both feet. The eastern towhee does scratch the ground as it forages, kicking back leaves, but it looks very different from the rusty-streaked and gray fox sparrow. Hermit thrushes, in flight, show a reddish tail, but they are not sparrows and have a more robin-like bill and body shape.

Size

Length: 7 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail). Large for a sparrow.

Fox Sparrow

Image of a fox sparrow
Audio of a fox sparrow in the wild.
Habitat and conservation

Uncommon migrant in weedy fields, brushy edges and woodland thickets. Look for fox sparrows under shrubs around your backyard or at the edge of the woods. Fox sparrows are not the most common sparrows in Missouri, yet a few can usually be seen each winter, especially in southern Missouri. Look for them scratching for food beneath bird feeders.

Foods

Like the eastern towhee, fox sparrows kick back leaves on the ground as they search for insects and seeds.

image of Fox Sparrow distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide, though populations are highest in the southeastern part of the state.

Status

Common transient in the eastern part of the state; uncommon transient in the west. Uncommon winter resident in the southern part of the state; rare winter resident in the north.

Life cycle

Fox sparrows breed in Canadian forests and northwestern US mountains, and they winter in Florida, Texas, and other southern, especially southeastern states, including southern Missouri. Mostly we see them as migrants, with their numbers peaking in March and April, and again in October and November. Between mid-May and the end of August, they are gone from Missouri, as they are up north in their breeding territory. There, they nest on the ground or on low branches of shrubs or trees. There is only 1 brood a year. A fox sparrow can live for at least 10 years.

Human connections

Fox sparrows are entertaining to watch as they rustle through the leaves and seeds underneath bird feeders. This style of feeding may remind you of chickens, but fox sparrows kick with both feet at the same time. They are one of our most musical sparrows, with a loud, beautiful song.

Ecosystem connections

Fox sparrows are widely distributed in North America, and they vary a great deal in different parts of their range. Our eastern populations are redder, while those to the west are grayer, or browner, for example. The bill size varies, too. No doubt these regional variations are adaptations to the different habitats each subspecies lives in.