For the Birds Radio Program: National Sparrow Awareness Week: Fox Sparrow

Original Air Date: May 1, 1989

Today Laura talks about a big, hardy sparrow. Date verified. 3:59. Script modified for the 90s, but I don’t know the date.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Fox Sparrow)

Today marks the first day in National Sparrow Week. This important event wasn’t declared by Congress, or even by the Wisconsin or Minnesota legislatures, so I went ahead and declared it myself. It’s about that time in spring migration when sparrow numbers begin to peak at feeders, and these precious visitors from the far north should not pass through unnoticed.

Sparrows confuse a lot of people—as a group they’re just little streaky birds, but their subtle beauty is a perfect antidote to this flashy 80’s kind of world. And their songs are simply exquisite.

Today’s featured bird, the Fox Sparrow, comes to us from the central and southern United States, and our eastern subspecies are heading all the way to Northern Canada. Western subspecies nest much further south, in the mountains. The Fox Sparrow is one of the biggest sparrows, and one of the hardiest, and so most of them have already left the Northland for icier climes. They are easily identified by their rufous, or fox-colored, lower back and tail, although some people do confuse them with the far more slender Hermit Thrush. Thrushes are spotted rather than streaked on their breasts, and lack the streaks on their backs that most of the Fox Sparrows in our area show. And thrushes have a far longer and more slender beak as well.

Fox Sparrows are also easily identified by their habit of exuberantly scratching the ground with both feet to expose weed seeds and insects. They don’t normally come to feeders in huge flocks like White-throats and Juncos, but this year I’ve had as many as 8 at a time, which was a real treat.

The song of the Fox Sparrow is especially lovely—it’s a rich carol of clear melodious notes, richer than those of any other sparrow. The song is impossible to match with a human’s mere larynx.

(Recording of a Fox Sparrow)

The Fox Sparrow frequently sings south of its breeding grounds, but it’s song is longest and richest when it reaches its remote homeland.

Fox Sparrows are sturdy birds, weighing in at 1-1 3/4 ounces—most of them would require extra postage to be mailed. They can live a long time—one banded bird lived for 6 years, and another was trapped and released when it was 9 years, 9 months old.

Like most small birds, Fox Sparrows migrate by night. Long ago, when the night sky was filled with stars and the night earth was cloaked in darkness, navigation was simple. Now the artificial lights of cities and airports and radio towers and safe harbors overwhelm the nocturnal darkness, and the starry map of the Fox Sparrow is more difficult to read. On foggy nights they become so disoriented that they often fly straight into artificial lights, especially ones directly in their airspace. Fox Sparrows are among the many species of birds found dead beneath TV and radio towers during migration every year.

And this spring how sad the birds will feel when they come home to Prince William Sound. One would hope the earth might be big enough to hold both people and Fox Sparrows. We may be bigger and stronger, but as far as being worthier, I think Fox Sparrows please our creator much more.

(Recording of a Fox Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”