Photograph by Vickie Anderson, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

A fox sparrow perches on a branch in western Washington.

Photograph by Vickie Anderson, Nat Geo Image Collection

Fox Sparrow

The fox sparrow feeds on the ground like a towhee. Pishing may bring the Fox into the open, but often it approaches cautiously from dense cover. Polytypic. Length 7".


This large, chunky sparrow has a medium-length tail, a large head, and a thick-based bill. Its plumage is highly variable by subspecies. Generally, it is dark above, with pale underparts that are heavily marked by dark triangular spots, which coalesce to form a central breast spot. Most subspecies have a reddish rump and tail; reddish coloring in the wings.

Geographic Variation

Fox sparrows comprise 4 fairly distinct subspecies groups that differ by consistent plumage traits, range, and voice. Some authorities consider these subspecies to be separate species. Identification to exact subspecies is rarely possible, given clinal variation, extreme similarity of certain subspecies, and the occurrence of intergrade populations. Key features of each group are overall upperparts coloration; color and extent of spotting below; presence of back streaking; bill size and color; and call note.

Similar Species

The “red” fox sparrow is occasionally confused with the hermit thrush, but note the “red” fox’s bill shape, streaked flanks, streaked back, and different behavior. The Lincoln’s and song sparrows are both smaller, with thinner bills, sharper breast streaking and proportionately longer tails; and they are as likely to be found in grassy or weedy areas than in wooded thickets.


Call: large-billed Pacific subspecies give a sharp chink call, like the California towhee’s; others give a tschup note, similar to but louder than the Lincoln’s sparrow’s, and similar to but softer than the brown thrasher’s. Flight note: high, rising seeep, given commonly on ground and in thickets. Song: sweet, melodic, warble composed of 7 or more phrases: for example, too-weet-wiew too-weet tuck-soo-weet-wiew. Sweeter in the northern reddish subspecies; includes harsher or buzzy trills in other subspecies.

Status and Distribution

Common. Winters south to northwest Mexico; the “thick-billed” breeds in northern Baja California. Breeding: dense willow and alder thickets (“red”); montane willow and alder thickets (“slate-colored”) or coastal forests and thickets (“sooty”); montane thickets and chaparral (“thick-billed”). Winter: undergrowth and dense thickets in coniferous or mixed woodlands, chaparral. Migration: fall migration late September–late November; Spring migration mid-February–late April. “Red” migrates several weeks earlier in the spring and later in the fall than western groups do.



—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006