dark eyed junco

Bird Bio: Fox Sparrow

Sparrows are a family of birds that the backyard birder tends to overlook. All sparrows seem to be lumped into the same vague description of “little brown birds that mostly stay on the ground”. Sparrows, though, are a pretty diverse group. Yes, they have many similarities but upon closer inspection you can see just how beautiful and varied they are. The Annotated Checklist of Birds of Tennessee recognizes 26 species of sparrows, 10 of which breed here. Many are considered rare, to uncommon, to seasonal, with few as year round residents. This time of year we see with regularity Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, and Juncos are included in the family, too. This week we’re going to focus on the Fox Sparrow. Last weekend I was birding at Hidden Lakes State Park on McCrory Ln and really had fun looking for sparrows in the lower meadow area along the Harpeth River. I got several good looks at Fox Sparrows as they darted from cover to cover feeding on native plant seeds.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The Fox Sparrow is a large sparrow measuring up to about 7”, which is just a little smaller than a Northern Cardinal. It is recognized for its heavily streaked rusty colored breast, and a rufous, or orange-brown tail, which is more noticeable in flight. The rusty brown combined with gray around the neck gives it its foxy look. Its song is described by Peterson’s Field Guide as brilliant and musical; a varied arrangement of short clear notes and sliding whistles. Click on the picture above to hear their song and read more. Behaviorally it feeds similarly to the Eastern Towhee scratching with both feet on the ground while foraging. It is a very distinguishable hopping forward and back motion. Look for Fox Sparrows to appear on the ground below feeders during wintery, snowy weather. Millet is a food of particular interest to them. By April Fox Sparrows leave this part of the country to go back north to their breeding areas.

Winter Birds Arriving

Dark Eyed Junco

Dark Eyed Junco

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

Although things have been a little quiet at the feeders some of our winter visitors will soon begin to appear at feeding stations.  This is the time when I begin ground feeding more.  Birds like Juncos, White-throated sparrows, White-crowned sparrows, and Fox sparrows start to quietly sneak into the picture below feeders and near areas of good cover like the brush piles I’ve created.  This handsome group of little birds likes white millet on the ground.  Sometimes you have to look closely to see them as they can blend into the leaves.  

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Other birds we look forward to seeing are Pine siskins and Purple finch, which may be seen in good numbers at finch and sunflower feeders.  Pine siskins and Purple finch are here practically every winter but their numbers may vary greatly.  Pine siskins may go unnoticed at finch feeders, blending in with the Goldfinches in their dull winter plumage.  Siskins are the size of a Goldfinch and their plumage is described as heavily streaked with a touch of yellow in the wings and base of the tail.  Listen for the buzzy “shreeee” sound Siskins make.  A flock of siskins may sound like bacon frying.  Goldfinches have slowly been returning to my feeders this week, although at first they were almost imperceptible because of their lack of color. 

Purple Finch on the left. House Finch on the right.

Purple finches are often confused with House finches.  While we see House finches year round at our feeders Purple finch are typically here only in the late fall and winter months.  The male Purple finch has a more raspberry red color that is most prominent on the chest, head and rump.  The head of the Purple finch is slightly crowned too. 

Suet feeders often produce some of the best surprises of the winter.  Golden and Ruby crowned kinglets will visit suet, as will the Yellow-bellied sapsucker and Red breasted nuthatch, Yellow-rumped and Orange crowned warblers, and Bluebirds and Brown Creepers

You may have noticed a lack of Goldfinches at your feeders. This is normal for this time of year. Read our post on “where did all the Goldfinches go”.  And every winter there are a few folks that will enjoy an overwintering hummingbird, like the Rufous, Anna’s, or even Black-chinned hummingbird.  If you see a hummingbird in the month of November or December please give us a call.

As always, a consistent supply of water is a great way to attract birds, especially in the winter.  Birdbath de-icers are now in stock.