A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Fox Sparrow is a common visitor to Sonoma County in the winter months. The earliest arrivals are usually noted in late September or even a few weeks earlier. Birds usually stay through late April the following year, with a few seen as late as May. Tends to stay fairly low to the ground, favoring thick brush, woodland undergrowth, and brushy areas of mountainous chaparral, often near water. Spends its summers in the Northwest, Canada, and Alaska, and winters in our area and south to Northern Mexico, east and south to Georgia and the Carolinas (although ranges depend on subspecies). Usually solitary but may be seen in small groups and often mixes with other sparrows. Frequently seen here with Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) and White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leoucophrys) and with California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis). Like California Towhee, forages on the ground, usually by hopping backwards, scraping with both feet to turn up food.

Probably the largest sparrow we commonly see. Chunky, with a moderately long tail and rounded head. Plumage is quite variable, and a number of subspecies are recognized. The eastern Red form, for example, is more rufous than our birds but with much grey on the head, suggesting a fox--hence the name Fox Sparrow. Peterson guides show four forms: the Red form, the Slate-colored form of the Rockies and Great Basin, the Thick-billed form of Oregon and California, and the Sooty form of the Northwest Coast. Sibley shows the same four forms but says the Sooty form is of the Pacific Coast generally, and it's this type we mostly see in Sonoma County. Within the Sooty form itself there is considerable variation. Some birds are lighter, some darker; some more brown, others more grey. Many sources note evidence suggesting the four types may be distinct species, but the data appear to be confusing. Within the Sooty form alone, six subgroups are recognized, according to the Wikipedia article on Sooty Fox Sparrow. The birds in the photo here are typical of birds we see in Sonoma County. In areas where subspecies overlap, they readily mix, creating many intermediate types--and more confusion.

Generally speaking, Fox Sparrow may be identified by its mostly dark upper side (locally ranging from chocolate brown, to medium brownish-grey, to slightly rufous brown, but almost always looking darker above than any of the other sparrows we see), and its white breast and belly boldly marked with brown, upside-down V-shaped spots. The spots usually coalesce into a blurry spot at the upper breast. The birds we see tend to show bigger, more randomly arranged spots than other subspecies, in which the spots tend to form vaguely streaked patterns. Tail, wings, and rump are often markedly more rufous than the other dark areas of the bird. Usually has a fine white eyering. Our birds mostly show no wing bars, but some Fox Sparrow forms have very fine wing bars. Bill is usually somewhat darker above, paler and more yellow below. The vent is spotted and slightly buffy--warmer in tone than the white areas of the belly. Aside from coloration, Fox Sparrow can be differentiated from other sparrows by its large size, skulky behavior in thickets and dense brush, and its foraging habit, described above.

May be confused with Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) or Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), but Hermit Thrush runs and stops like a typical thrush, it’s paler, and its spots are rounded rather than V-shaped. Hermit Thrush has a very different (pointed, bi-colored) bill, unlike the heavy seed-eater bill of Fox Sparrow. Compared with Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow is much more heavily spotted, and Fox Sparrow lacks the distinctive facial pattern of Song Sparrow, which is a smaller, leaner-looking bird (see photos below). 

Selected county sightings: Strawberry School Park (December 22, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (November 26, 2011); Spring Lake (October 27, 2011); Owl Canyon (September 17, 2011, Robert Jackson); Hole in the Head (September 16, 2011, Phil Henderson); Spring Lake (December 21, 2010, Ruth Rudesill); Ragle Ranch Park (October 10, 2010, Scott Corvus).

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 115

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 470

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 420

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 480

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 613-614

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 596

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 336

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 432

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 346

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 246-251 (notes on sparrow ID generally), pp. 249

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 419-433 (notes on sparrow ID generally), pp. 106, 423, 430

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 254

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 68

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 300

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 336

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 324

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 420

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, pp. 684-685

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 388

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Fox Sparrow



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Fox Sparrow, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, November 26, 2011

For comparison: Hermit Thrush, Channel Drive, Santa Rosa, January 22, 2011

For comparison: Song Sparrow, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, April 16, 2011

Fox Sparrow, Owl Canyon, Bodega Bay, September 13, 2012

Fox Sparrow, Arroyo Sierra Dr., Santa Rosa, December 22, 2012

Nice view of the vent area, showing buffy tint and spotting. Note the molting tail feathers.

Fox Sparrow

Passerella iliaca

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 2, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County