Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fox Sparrows Are Memorable
March 17, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     Sparrows are those “little brown jobs” that beginning birders often struggle to identify. To the novice, most of them look alike. But if you look at them closely, most have some specific field marks that make them unique and, thus, can be identified with the help of a field guide. It helps to learn some of the more common sparrows as they will help you differentiate some of the less common ones. 

     During winter we commonly see the tree sparrows with their rusty caps and a small dark dot in the middle of their plain breast. In spring, the small chipping sparrows arrive with their clear breasts and rusty caps. Similar to the wintering tree sparrows, the “chippy’s” are smaller, lack the dark breast spot, and have a distinct white eyebrow over a black eye line.

     The adult white-throated sparrows sport a distinct black and white striped crown and a white throat. Some white-throated sparrows, and the immature birds, have tan and brown stripes on the head and a white throat. The year ‘round song sparrow is striped all down the breast and belly and has a dark spot in the middle of the breast. They have a distinct song that starts with three clear notes followed by a jumble of melodious notes. 

     My favorite sparrow is certainly the fox sparrow. The fox sparrow is larger than the other sparrows and when you first see it you might think it is a thrush. But its distinct rusty coloration on its head, rump and tail, and bold rust stripes on the front, make it unmistakable. It is a handsome bird with gray about the side of the head and neck. It feeds mainly on the ground, kicking both feet together back and forth, towhee-like, to scratch the leaves or earth to uncover food.

     The fox sparrows are most often seen in early spring and fall as they migrate through our area. There have been several reports of them around the North Shore in the past week or so. We have seen them just a few times over the past twenty or so years at the store feeders. So I was delighted when I received a text from Margo saying that we had a fox sparrow in our yard. It was a new yard bird for us! 

     The fox sparrow is also a favorite yard bird for our dear friends Doug Chickering and his recently departed Lois, of Groveland. He shares with us this poignant story of a fox sparrow seen in his yard: 

     “This winter hangs on with a familiar persistence. We in New England have seen this show before. Last week I spent trapped in the house with the electricity gone as the fury of a Nor’easter wreaked its vengeance upon us. The weather forecasters are predicting another storm this coming week, with the maddening good nature that is their way. 

     “It is March. The clocks have been pushed ahead, the vernal equinox is on the horizon. There are an increasing number of Icterids at our feeders. Spring is almost within touching distance. Yet it is March and March is a winter month. This can be discouraging. However, the natural world plays no favorites and is a place on relenting unstoppable change. 

     “This morning an unmistakable sign of spring arrived at the base of my feeder pole; scratching away at the detritus. A courier of the better days to come. Like every March there was our Fox Sparrow. As I expect a return visit in November. 

     “When Lois first built her house, she had a red bud tree planted in her back yard. Red bud trees blossom into a spectacular reddish pink every April and added to the color of the dogwoods and choke cherry trees in her yard. Red bud trees are a southern variety and from the beginning Lois never expected this tree to survive many brutal Massachusetts winters. But it did. Although it slowly wore away there was still a large part of it alive entering this winter. It lasted thirty years. 

     “With this last devastating storm, it finally was toppled as if with the loss of Lois, it was finally time for it to go as well. Therefore, the sight of the Fox Sparrow is accompanied by a tug of sadness. She would have been delighted to see it. Therefore, so am I.”

     Our thoughts and prayers are with you Doug.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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