Wild Side: Tracking the elusive fox sparrow

You’ll know this foraging species by its unique double-footed kicks.

An elusive fox sparrow perches on a deck railing. — Matt Pelikan

I wouldn’t call the fox sparrow a rare bird on Martha’s Vineyard. I can’t think of a winter that yielded no records at all of this species, and at times this colorful sparrow can be fairly numerous. Twice in the mid-1960s, for example, the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count (CBC) turned up 23 individuals. But it’s also possible for even an active observer to miss this bird entirely for years at a time. And in recent decades, typical CBC numbers have stayed in single digits; for the 2021 count (actually held on Jan. 2 of this year), that digit was zero.

So I was pleased when, in mid-January, I noticed the chunky shape and rufous tones of a fox sparrow hidden deep in one of the red cedars in our Oak Bluffs yard. I’d recorded the species before as a “yard bird,” but the most recent occasion was about 20 years ago.

For a couple of weeks, my fox sparrow remained nearly undetectable. I’d get occasional glimpses of the bird lurking in the dim light under the cedars, perhaps eating fallen cedar fruits, after which it would disappear for days at a time. But the blizzard that swept the Island on January 29 changed the game. With a foot or more of wet, drifting snow covering up whatever the fox sparrow had been feeding on, my elusive visitor finally came into the open.

As the snow fell, the fox sparrow joined the usual juncos and song sparrows in feeding on bird seed I spread on our deck. Despite dim light, the snow-filled air, and blobs of wet snow pasted to the glass of our sliding door, I enjoyed good views of this distinctive songbird as it dug energetically for seeds, raising little clouds of snow with the powerful, double-footed kicks that are a trademark foraging move of the species.

The next day, cold temperatures and deep snow again brought this secretive bird out into the open. With better light, I had prolonged opportunities to watch the sparrow in action. During its short but intense bouts of feeding, it displayed an astonishing level of aggression toward other birds, pressing home attacks of pecking and biting on any other bird that came too close. It seemed so wedded to digging with its two-footed kicks that it performed this move even in the midst of seeds lying visible on the snow surface.

The presence of a fox sparrow in my yard became less surprising as other observations of the species filtered into the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Alert Facebook page. At least four other individuals were visiting feeders around the Island; one, in Tisbury, ended up as a meal for a Cooper’s hawk. This relative wealth of fox sparrows was interesting, given that all-out effort by dozens of observers failed to tally a fox sparrow for the CBC.

It seems reasonable to infer that a modest wave of fox sparrows hit the Vineyard during the second and third week of January, bringing single birds to be detected at feeders and, perhaps, other individuals to be overlooked in more natural settings. (Solo fox sparrows are the rule on the Vineyard, though during migration in mainland Massachusetts, where the species is generally more common, flocks of up to a dozen or so individuals are sometimes encountered.)

Midwinter movements are not surprising for this bird, which breeds in boreal forest thickets and seems to be very adaptive in its migratory patterns. Fox sparrows often winter down in the deep south, sometimes as far as the Gulf of Mexico coastline. But many of these hardy sparrows remain much farther north, as far as northern Maine, heading south when they find snow cover or deep cold becoming burdensome. They may linger, as mine did, in places that offer the right mix of food and dense cover; or they move on, disappearing as suddenly and subtly as they arrived.

Large for a sparrow, plump in build, and appearing still larger and plumper because of its fluffy plumage, our eastern fox sparrow is a distinctive bird. (Fox sparrows in the West look quite different and may in fact be better thought of as one or more separate species.) True to its name, our fox sparrow is dominated by rufous tones, with a reddish tail and wings, red streaking on the back, and heavy reddish streaking on the breast (individual spots of the breast streaking usually take the form, distinctively, of chevrons). Seen well, a fox sparrow shows bright pink feet and legs and a yellow lower mandible on the bill.

There are plenty of other streaky species of sparrow, but it doesn’t take much birding expertise to recognize the size, shape, and coloration of a fox sparrow. It takes even less expertise to enjoy this bird, with its colorful appearance and complex behavior. Keep an eye on your feeder, if you have one, and on thickets and shrubby edge habitat if you don’t.