The Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) is a widespread migrant, winter visitor, and breeding species across North America, with 16-19 recognized races. These races can be divided into 4 groups, based on plumage characteristics, DNA, and possibly song and habitat preferences (Zink 1986; Pyle 1997). Zink found that measurement characters alone are insufficient to assign many individuals to one of the 16+ races. Birders should have no trouble, though, assigning most birds to one of the 4 groups proposed below. Reference list for this page and linked documents.
General appearance and breeding range:
For more information on the identification of these different forms see Rising (1995) and Zink and Ressen (1999).
Red Fox Sparrow: These are the only Fox Sparrows found in eastern North America. They nest widely across Canada and in interior Alaska. They are bright rusty on the tail and wing. The breast streaks are reddish and thick. There is reddish streaking on the grayish back. They have faint white wingbars. The base of the lower mandible is colored yellow-orange or pinkish. The call note is described as a loud smacking "tic" similar to a Brown Thrasher or loud Lincoln's Sparrow.
Sooty Fox Sparrow: These are the Fox Sparrows breeding from the Aleutian Islands and coastal Alaska south to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. They are dark chocolate-brown with a faint reddish tinge to the rump and edges to the wing feathers. They have no wingbars. They are heavily streaked below with grayish-brown. The base of the lower mandible is bright yellow. The call note is a loud "check" or "chap" similar to a loud Lincoln's Sparrow.
Sooty Fox Sparrow: wintering fuliginosa on northern Oregon coast. Photo by Mike Patterson. Used with permission
Slate-colored Fox Sparrow: These Fox Sparrows are found in the Rocky Mountains and similar mountains of western North America, ranging from Colorado to eastern California, north through interior British Columbia and Alberta. These are very gray on the upperparts, back and face, but rather reddish wings and tail. The breast streaks are dark brown. There may be two faint wing bars. The bills are small, especially compared to the otherwise similar Thick-billed Fox Sparrows. The base color of the lower mandible is not unequivocal, but usually yellow. Spectrograms of the call notes are intermediate betwen the sharp tick of Sooty and the metalic ring of Thick-billed, a "tzip" (Garrett et al. 2000), and a "chek" or "chirp" (Jewett et al. 1953).
Slate-colored Fox Sparrow (schistacea) in Malheur Co., Oregon. Photo by Matt Hunter. Used with permission.
Thick-billed Fox Sparrow: These sparrows are found from Mt. Hood in the northern Oregon Cascades south to southern California. The bills are rather thick as the name suggests, but there is wide variation. These birds are rather sooty grayish-brown above and streaked sparsely below with thin inverted black 'V's. The wing and tail are dark brown with a limited amount of rusty on the rump and wing. There are no wing bars. The base of the lower mandible is a colorless horn, some with a slight buish-gray tinge. The call note has been described as a metalic California Towhee-like "chink," or a White-crowned Sparrow-like "zink."
Thick-billed Fox Sparrow: breeding fulva/megarhyncha in northern Oregon Cascades. Photo by Steve Dowlan. Used with permission.
Text of e-mail concerning Fox Sparrow ID on the mailing list: ID Frontiers (Feb-Mar 1997).
Continue on to... Breeding Fox Sparrows in Oregon
Continue on to... Breeding Fox Sparrows in the southern Cascades of Washington
American Ornithologists Union. 1957. Check-list of N. A. birds, 5th edition.
Contreras, A. 2002. Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca, in Birds of Oregon: a General Reference, D. Marshall, A. Contreras, M. Hunter, editors.
DeBenedictis, P. 1996. The Fox Sparrow Follies. Birding 28:4
Garrett, K.L., J.L. Dunn, and R. Righter. 2000. Call Note and Winter Distribution in the Fox Sparrow Complex. Birding 32(5):412-417.
Gabrielson, I. and S. G. Jewett. 1940. Birds of Oregon.
Jewett, S.G., W.P. Taylor, W.T. Shaw, and J.W. Aldrich. 1953. Birds of Washington State.
Pyle, P., S.N.G. Howell, R.P. Yunick, M. Gustafson, and D. DeSante. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Passerines. Slate Creek Press. Bolinas.
Rising, J. 1995. Taxonomy and identification of Fox Sparrows. Birder's Journal 4:159-166.
Swarth, H.S. 1920. Revision of the avian Passerella, with special reference to the distribution and migration of the races in California. Univ. Cal. Publs. Zool. 21:75-224.
Walker, A. 1917. Some birds of central Oregon. Condor XIX.
Zink, R.M. 1986. Patterns and evolutionary significance of geographic variation in the schistacea group of the Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca). A.O.U.
Zink, R.M. 1994. The geography of mitochondrial DNA variation, population structure, hybridization, and species limits in the fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). Evolution. 48:96-111.
Zink, R.M. and A. E. Kessen. 1999. Species Limits in the Fox Sparrow Past, Present, and a Recipe for Resolution. Birding 31(6):508-517.
Zink, R.M. and Jason D. Weckstein. 2003. Recent evolutionary history of the Fox Sparrows (Genus: Passerella). Auk 120(2): 522-527.