Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #28: Fox Sparrow

Winter brings visitors from the north, and attracts short-distance migrants into the Piedmont and coastal plain. Among the avian visitors are a host of sparrows, one of which is the fox sparrow.

Fox Sparrow / Photo by James C. Leupold (USFWS)

Field guides do not quite convey how distinctive fox sparrows look in the field. Almost uniformly, they show the bright rufous upperparts and the crisp black chevrons on the breast. While these field marks are sufficient for identification, what really separates a fox sparrow from the most rufous of song sparrows is something that is harder to quantify. Fox sparrows stand out for their size and bulkiness even next to larger song and white-throated sparrows.

Fox Sparrows spend their summers in northern Canada and Alaska. The red, or eastern, form breeds in the boreal forest of eastern Canada and winters in the mid-Atlantic and southern United States. Other forms are distributed farther west. They can be spotted in the underbrush as the scratch through leaves for seeds and insects.

Since fox sparrows breed so far to the north, and only stay in this region for a few months, it is unusual to hear one sing at these latitudes. With all the warm weather lately, several observers in the DC area have reported hearing snatches of fox sparrow songs recently. A fox sparrow sings a clear, warbled song, similar to a purple finch or orchard oriole. It is something to listen for on your next walk in the woods.