Fox Sparrow, Passerella iliaca


Fox Sparrow
Sooty. Fox Sparrows come in four groups that many authorities believe should be recognized as separate species. The birds pictured above and below are Sooty Fox Sparrows, the group that winters in the SF Bay Area, among other places, after nesting along the northwest Pacific Coast up through southern Alaska. They are overall rich brown, with heavy spotting on their underparts, and moderate-sized bicolored bills. Don Roberson provides an excellent analysis of the four Fox Sparrow groups, with additional treatment of many of the recognized subspecies, in this online article, which uses several of the photographs on this page as examples.


Fox Sparrow
Sooty.


Fox Sparrow
Sooty or Slate-colored. Don Roberson suggests that the bird shown above, photographed in Santa Clara County in November, could be either a Sooty, normal in the Bay Area, or a Slate-colored Fox Sparrow of the subspecies altivagans. Slate-coloreds nest in the Rockies and mountains of the Great Basin, and winter mostly in Southern California and the southwest. They typically show more contrast than Sooties, with heads and backs more gray than brown, and more rusty-colored tails;  they also have relatively small bills, and are less spotted underneath. The altivagans subspecies, which breeds in the interior of British Columbia, has more brown in the back and underparts than other Slate-colored subspecies and so is nearest to the Sooty group in appearance. This bird does show more gray in the head and a more rusty tail than the typical Sooty, but the spotting pattern is nearly identical with that of the bird shown above it, which is undoubtedly a Sooty.
 


Fox Sparrow
Sooty. This Sooty Fox Sparrow, like the ambiguous bird pictured just above, shows more contrast than the uniformly rich brown of the birds in the top two photos -- more gray in the head, and a bit more red in the tail coverts. The very heavy spotting supports treating the bird as a Sooty.


Fox Sparrow
Red. Here is my only photo of a Red Fox Sparrow, the group that nests across northern Canada
and central Alaska, and winters in the eastern US. This bird was photographed in Nome,
Alaska, at the northern edge of the Fox Sparrow's range. It shows the strong contrast between
gray and rufous that characterizes this group: gray crown and nape, rufous auriculars, wings,
tail, and breast and underpart streaks and spots against a white background, and alternating
gray and rufous stripes on the back. The bill of most Red Fox Sparrows is bi-colored gray
and yellow as in the Sooty and Slate-colored, but this individual's bill, though small for a
Fox Sparrow, is gray all over, like the larger bill of the Thick-billed Fox Sparrow, see below.


Fox Sparrow
Thick-billed. The Thick-billed group of Fox Sparrows breed in the Sierras in eastern California, where I see them and hear them singing
constantly in early summer when I visit there. Their most striking distinguishing feature is a much larger bill, which is gray all over, where the other three groups have smaller bills with yellow lower mandibles and upper mandibles gray with yellow at the base. Thick-billed Fox Sparrows have a gray head, mantle and underpart spots contrasting with brown wings and tail, and like the Slate-colored their spotting is less extensive is than the Sooty's.


Fox Sparrow
Thick-billed.


Fox Sparrow
Thick-billed.


Fox Sparrow
Thick-billed.