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Fox Sparrow: One of Nature's Largest Sparrows

by Patty Elton - Certified Virginia Master Naturalist

Glancing out the rear home window on a cold December day my eyes were drawn to the top of our pergola where I noticed a fluffy rufous-colored bird with a heavily spotted and streaked breast where the markings underneath centralized to a dark breast spot. This rusty capped bird also sported an attention grabbing gray face. I first thought Fox Sparrow and indeed upon closer observation our visitor was the uncommon but not endangered Fox Sparrow. It’s been hanging out at the feeders for the last four days, long enough to observe its lame leg and the fact it travels singly. Most Fox Sparrows do hang out singly but some are known to form small groups. The other “little brown birds” at my feeders this winter have been the White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow and the Field Sparrow. Both the White-throat and the Fox are migrants breeding in boreal regions stretching into northern Canada and as far away the west coast of North American from Alaska to California. The Song Sparrow and the Field Sparrow may be observed in Virginia year-round.

I was once told by a more experienced fellow birder that once I identified all the sparrows listed in my field guide that I should promptly rip out the sparrow pages and throw them away. Actually, I couldn’t disagree more. If you are a birder, the Emberizine family is one of the more challenging families to master. Yes, there are many little brown birds you’ll observe in our Virginia area including other interesting species such as the common Carolina Wren and the occasionally seen Brown Creeper but it’s the small differences among the sparrows that challenge the enthusiastic birder.

This east coast wintering visitor known as the Red Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) is the most brightly colored and only member of the genus Passerella, however, the genus has been broken into four species.

The Fox Sparrow changes its diet seasonally, feasting on insects and larvae in the warmer months and switching to seeds in colder months. Many sparrows including the Fox Sparrow forge by scratching the ground using a double-hop or more often referred to as a “double-scratch” method where they kick both feet simultaneously to expose food. You may have observed this action by the Eastern Towhee. This beautiful bird seems to catch the eye more quickly and folks tend to notice its “double-scratch” behavior as well. But upon close observation, you’ll see it’s a common motion among the Emberizidae Family, the classification for both Sparrows and Towhees. Unfortunately being a ground feeder makes them particularly vulnerable to cats.

Cats are not a natural part of our ecosystem. According to the American Bird Conservancy cats kill hundreds of millions of birds and more than a billion small mammals each year. Extensive studies of the feeding habits of free-roaming domestic cats have been done in America. Following is a summary for Virginia:

Researchers compared a free-roaming domestic pet cat in a rural area with 4 urban cats. The rural cat captured a total of 27 native species (8 bird, 2 amphibian, 9 reptile, and 8 mammal, including the star-nosed mole, a species of special state concern). The 4 urban cats captured 21 native species (6 bird, 7 reptile, and 8 mammal). Between January and November 1990 each cat caught, on average, 26 native individuals in the urban area, and 83 in the rural area. The study did not count prey killed and completely consumed, prey killed and left elsewhere, prey that escaped but died later from infection or injury, or non-native prey. (Mitchell, J. and R.A. Beck. 1992. Free-ranging domestic cat predation on native vertebrates in rural and urban Virginia. Virginia Journal of Science 43:197-206).

You will note this study is from more than a decade ago and considering how the Commonwealth’s population has increased certainly the problem has increased as well. If you are reading this article on birds, I can only assume you are an individual cognizant of our fragile natural world. So excuse the soap box but truly the only responsible way to embrace your pussy cat with love and affection while embracing nature is to keep your feline indoors. A few quick facts. Sadly, well-fed cats do kill birds and other wildlife. Their hunting instinct is separate from their desire to eat. Cats with bells on their collars do kill birds. First, cats are shrewd enough to learn to silently stalk their prey. Second, birds do not necessarily associate the ringing of a bell as a danger sound. Lastly, statists prove that most birds and small mammals captured and released by cats do not survive, most fall victim to internal hemorrhaging. The American Bird Conservancy sponsors the campaign CATS INDOORS! THE CAMPAIGN FOR SAFER BIRDS AND CATS. Learn more by visiting

Patty EltonSo when bird watching this winter take time to notice the “little brown birds” and their inconspicuous beauty while they rustle among the leaves at the base of your feeder.


Published: 01/06/2011


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