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Fox Sparrows

Dear Bird Folks:

We have recently spotted what appear to be fox sparrows in the yard. They jump up and down on the ground moving the loose dirt around with their feet, creating a little crater of sorts. Is this part of a mating ritual or are they looking for food ??

-Lulu, Brewster

Food Lulu,

The sparrows are looking for food. It is not a mating ritual, they are simply looking for food. There, I’ve answered your question, but now I’m in trouble. If I don’t come up with another seven hundred words, I won’t get paid. Wait, I don’t get paid for writing this anyhow. How did that happen? I must be nuts writing this week after week for nothing. I think I’m going to fire my agent, as soon as I hire one.

As a whole, sparrows can be a very frustrating group of birds to identify. Many times I’ve sat on the side of a trail, with my head down, sobbing, because I’ve just spent an entire morning trying to identify a group of bland birds we call sparrows. Here on Cape Cod, we regularly see about a dozen and a half different species of sparrows, all sharing assorted vague shades of brown.

Fortunately, Fox Sparrows are one of the few sparrows that are somewhat identifiable. The first thing that stands out is their size. They are one of our largest sparrows, certainly much larger than the similar looking Song Sparrow. They are heavily streaked and feature more of a rufous red coloring than the generic brown of most other sparrows. It is this rufous red color that gives the Fox Sparrow it’s name. Even the Latin-specific epithet “iliaca” refers to “foxy” rufous red color. At least I hope that’s what that refers to.

Contrary to public belief, Fox Sparrows are not named after either Michael J. Fox or the Hot Chocolate Sparrow coffee shop. And just because they spend the entire day digging in the dirt, it doesn’t mean that they have any connection with those freaks at the Fox TV network. Even sparrows know better than to associate with them.

It is this digging in the dirt that gives the Fox Sparrow one of its most reliable behavioral traits. It’s the same behavior that caught your attention, Lulu. Fox Sparrows have the habit of foraging for food by ripping at the ground with both feet, “towhee style.” Most birds scratch with one foot, if they scratch at all. My neighbor’s chickens come to mind. They seem to look straight ahead, scratch at the ground with one foot, then back up and look down to see if they’ve uncovered any food. The Fox Sparrows on the other hand, kick with both feet at once. Slow motion studies show that the birds reach forward with both feet, and clear a piece of ground “in front” of them, as opposed to underneath themselves, like the chickens do. By doing this, the sparrows clear a spot that is immediately in their viewing range and thus can grab any uncovered food instantly, without having to back up.

If you travel at all, knowing this double kicking behavior may help you identify other Fox Sparrows, because the birds that you saw in your yard in Brewster probably won’t look like the Fox Sparrows seen in other parts of the country. Remember what I said about sparrows being tough birds to identify? Well, even an easy to identify sparrow has to have some twist to give us fits. And with the Fox Sparrow, it is that the birds tend to look different throughout their range. In fact, as many as eighteen different subspecies or races of Fox Sparrows have been described, each looking just a little different than the next. Luckily for us, the birds that we see in the East are the foxiest. That is they have the most red, which makes them stand out more.

Fox Sparrows aren’t that common here on the Cape. A few hang around in the winter, but most of them are seen as they stop to rest, kick up some sand, and eat on their way north. They are often found under feeders, where they actually eat that awful mixed seed that the grocery stores sell.

You were lucky to see those Fox Sparrows, Lulu. I haven’t seen one for years. Perhaps I would have seen more if I didn’t spend so much of my time on the side of the trail, with my head down, sobbing.