The fox sparrow is a tough subject.
For one thing, it’s an elusive species.
For another, it is highly variable.
Still, it is a big, brightly colored sparrow, in contrast to some of its cousins.
Plus, it is an early migrant, showing up before there is too much cover to hide in.
This is important, because the fox sparrow is a ground-loving bird, and despite its bright rust color, it tends to disappear in leaf litter and low vegetation.
The fox sparrow is named for its most obvious color. This is hardly the most dominant color, however. That would be the overall warm gray the fox sparrow displays. More of the bird is gray than rust. Rust just shows up better.
The rust occurs in blotches on the face and neck and in streaks on the breast. The tail is almost entirely rust.
This is highly variable. Some individuals appear more rusty than others, some more gray.
Fortunately, no other sparrow species displays all of these characteristics: large size, rust color and ground-hugging behavior.
Probably, the species most often confused for the fox sparrow is the song sparrow. This is another large sparrow, but it is darker, overall, and the stripes converge in a circle on its breast.
The fox sparrow has a blotch of color on the breast, too, but it is messy. The song sparrow’s is neat
The song sparrow does occur on the ground, but it more often is seen on an exposed branch, perhaps, a yard—seldom as much as 2 yards—above the ground. There it pours out the song that gives it both its common and its scientific name, Melospiza melodia.
The fox sparrow belongs to a different genus, Passerella, and the bird is named because it is a “bird of passage” in most of the United States.
Fox sparrows nest across northern Canada and Alaska, reaching the Arctic Coast in some areas. The closest nesters to us would be in extreme northern Manitoba. Farther west, the range curves southward, and fox sparrows occur in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada as far south as Colorado and California.
In the Red River Valley, they are strictly migrants. They often arrive quite early, usually as the second or third representative of a string of migrating sparrows. Generally, the American tree sparrow appears first, then the fox sparrow, then such species as the white-throated and white-crowned sparrow.
All of these move farther north to nest.
The local sparrows tend to arrive a bit later. These include the song sparrow, a fairly common nesting species in our area. This helps avoid confusion between two roughly similar species.
Fox sparrows vary enough that a number of subspecies have been identified. Some authorities list as many as 18. These are red, slate-colored, sooty and thick-billed.
Fox sparrows that occur here belong to the red group.
Birds of the Rockies are sooty, of the North Pacific sooty and of the Sierra thick-billed.
These groups differ not only in appearance but in behavior and habitat preference—indications that each of the groups and perhaps some of the subspecies may, in the course of time, evolve into separate species.
I don’t have time to wait for that.
In fact, I’m impatient waiting for the appearance of sparrows. So far, the most frequent guests at my feeders are dark-eyed juncos, and they’ve been here an uncommonly long time. I only can attribute this to the odd, intermittent winter we’ve experienced. Warm weather and south winds should push them out and bring a wave of sparrows to replace them.
Late sparrows and lingering juncos are not the only oddities of the season. Earlier, I remarked on the number of eagles seen in the area, evidence of the continuing recovery of a species once threatened with extinction.
The passage of swans was extraordinary, too.
I’ve been keeping close track of the neighborhood meadowlarks, and my conclusion is a simple one. Where there is grass, there are meadowlarks. But there is far less grass than there was and so, overall, there are fewer meadowlarks. This justifies the state Game and Fish Department’s decision to name the meadowlark a species of “conservation concern” in North Dakota.
Last week, I checked two dancing grounds that have been used by sharp-tailed grouse. One was busy. One was vacant—another sign that habitat is dwindling for grassland birds in Grand Forks County.