Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fox Sparrow

Nature Watch

By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum

The bird feeders at my parent’s house are still busy in spite of the many migrant birds that have left us for a while. A few glances at the feeder show the less colorful winter plumage of the goldfinch, the slate-colored juncos, chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, white and red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, white-throated and fox sparrows. It was the fox sparrows that recently caught my eye, and ears. A larger sparrow, fox sparrows are bright rust-colored on the tail and wing. There are red, thick streaks on the breast, and reddish streaks on a gray colored back with faint white wingbars. Their lower mandible is colored pink to yellow-orange. These sparrows are a striking bird, and have some additionally interesting behaviors.

Fox sparrows most appealing behaviors are ones to hear, rather than see. They scratch through leaves through insects and seeds, and make so much noise they sound like a larger animal. These noticeable actions come from a vigorous double-scratching as the fox sparrow kicks backward in the litter with a two-footed jump-kick motion as they work to uncover food. This same foraging behavior unfortunately makes them vulnerable to cats and other predators.

The main food choices of fox sparrows are seeds from grasses and a plant called smartweed. They will eat berries as well. During warmer seasons, they also eat insects and feed them to their young. When nesting, adults are known to perform a broken-wing display to lure potential threats away from the nest.

Be sure to enjoy the fox sparrows around your own feeders, birds which are collectively known as a “den,” or “slyness” of sparrows. Enjoy them while you can though, as they spend our winters in the warmer climates of North America. Their migration this season began in early October and by mid-November, only the last few will remain in our neck of the woods. Watch and listen for this last glimpse of color and sound as they scratch around the fall leaves of our northwoods backyards.

For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

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