Finding Fox Sparrows

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a winter sparrow common in blackberry tangles and thick shrubs along roadsides and field edges.

I’ve been gearing up for this year’s Christmas Bird Counts and doing a little birding along the hedgerows and shrubs growing beside the rural roads near my workplace in rural Comox Valley, British Columbia. This week I was out during my lunch break and checked out some of the common winter sparrows that are regulars on any CBC on Vancouver Island.

Earlier last week I profiled the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) that I saw down at the Courtenay Estuary. There were a few song sparrows around on my walk, but more common was the fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). A beginning birder might mistake the fox for a song but a closer look at some diagnostic features makes them fairly easy to separate.

I like to think that the fox sparrow generally has a chunkier look than the song sparrow. On the Pacific coast, the Sooty (Pacific) Fox Sparrow tends to be darker brown than the other regional forms of this species. Look for the suggestion of a white eye-ring and thick dark spots on the breast which are much heavier than on a song sparrow. For me, one of the key features to separate these two sparrows is the bill – the fox sparrow has a heavier looking bill that is usually at least two-toned, yellow on the bottom and dark on the top.

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
The “Sooty” Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) is characterized by a dark brown colour, two-toned bill, and thick spots on the breast. Look for hints of reddish brown on the tail and wings.

Keep in mind that the coastal fox sparrow can have hints of reddish brown on the tail and wings, possibly suggesting a hermit thrush. However, the behaviour and habitat is usually enough to separate them as well as the fact that their bills look very different structurally.

Like other sparrows, these do respond well to “pishing” and I was able to coax this one out into the open with a little effort. Mind you, a sharp-shinned hawk had just flown through so most of the sparrows, juncos and towhees were pretty agitated.

Keep an eye open for fox sparrows on your next walk through a neighbourhood park. You might just impress your friends by being able to identify this distinctive winter sparrow!

Read more at 10, 000 Birds‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrows, Vancouver and at Pacific NW Birder (a good regional birding blog) In the Backyard … Fox Sparrow.