Every year, there is a bird I look forward to seeing during the late winter. It usually shows up in February or March, on its way to the north, returning to eastern Canada. Even though the Fox Sparrow is a sparrow, it does not look like the ones we are used to seeing. It is large and comes in different shades of brown, some almost orange; hence its name.
There are four subspecies of Fox Sparrow in the United States, the one in our area is the most vividly colored and ranges over the largest area, from our southeastern states where it spends the winter, through the northern tier of the U.S. into Canada and Alaska.
Fox Sparrows are 6.75 to 7.5 inches long with a wingspan of 10.5 to 11.75 inches, confusing most people when they first see one. It’s hard to believe it’s a sparrow. Like most sparrows, its breast is striped with rich brown and, like some others, it also has a central brown spot. Its short tail and wings are brown-to-orange, with gray over its eyes and back. Its stout, conical bill is darker on the top than the orange bottom.
We seldom see them because they often migrate by night, but if they tire or get hungry, they will stop for a period of time. They will eat seeds and bread crumbs from beneath a feeder, if they find one, or they will scrape up snow and leaves by double-scratching, using their claws to push backwards looking for insects, insect eggs, seeds, fruits and berries, and small arthropods. Once rested and sated, they will be on their way.
During the summer, they will breed and nest in deciduous and conifer forests, in heavy undergrowth, and in riparian woodlands where they will raise one or two broods. By November, they are on their way south again.
They are declining in the east because of development and logging, which is making it harder for us to find one visiting our yards.
Even though they are hard to find, keep an eye out for this unusual bird — you may be in for a treat!