Prince William Conservation Alliance
Home About Us Calendar Resources Donate
Fox Sparrow
Photos © Dave Govani, Near Brentsville, Virginia; March 2012
Text by Ellen Katinas

Fox Sparrow
Passerella iliaca
Order: Passeriformes; Family: Emberizidae

Fox Sparrows kick! They also talk “smack” when an enemy threatens. But before you picture a burly sparrow kickfighter, know that we are really talking about a reserved, retiring bird.

Outside of the breeding season, they often spend time alone, and they prefer to build their nests in remote areas away from people.

Four varieties of Fox Sparrow exist: Red, Sooty, Slate Colored, and Long Billed. As you might expect, their feather colors range from rusty red to gray to brown.

A trait common to all is the characteristic kick, actually a double scratch, that they perform as they forage for insects, seeds, or buds.

They also share a “smack” call. Fox Sparrows give this when disputing territory or warning an intruder away from their nest. It sounds like “smack, smack” or “sip, sip.”

The sparrow ranges all over North America, but people have spotted individuals in Germany, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, and Greenland. Ornithologists guess that they became accidental stowaways by touching down to rest on a boat far from shore.

Fossils from Fox Sparrows alive 11,000 years ago have been found in Virginia and California. Logging, and changes to forest fire regimes, have worked to their advantage, as these create the dense shrubby regrowth in which the birds like to live.

Encourage Fox Sparrows to visit by growing shrubs and berry bushes or keeping a brush pile in your backyard. The birds may take fallen seeds from under a bird feeder, especially if they know that protective cover is close by.