For the Birds Radio Program: Fox Sparrows

Original Air Date: May 3, 1995 Rerun Dates: April 24, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about a familiar spring visitor to Northland feeders. 3:50

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One of the first sparrows to pass through North Country in spring is the Fox Sparrow. This heavy, oversized bird has a vivid reddish-brown tail and boldly streaked breast, and the way it throws its whole body into scratching the ground with vigor and gusto make it look far more dramatic than other sparrows.

Fox Sparrows may lack delicacy in their plumage and movements, but their song is perfectly lovely, especially memorable both because of a hard-to-describe lisp and because they often sing during rotten weather. I’ve noticed this many times, finding little cheer in an April ice storm except for their happy tune. In 1906, William Brewster wrote, ” Strange to say, the birds sing most freely and with the greatest spirit during stormy weather, especially when snow is falling.” Perhaps bad weather reminds them of the far northern reaches they call home. In 1883, Brewster wrote one of the prettiest descriptions of the Fox Sparrow’ s song ever written:

What the Mockingbird is to the South, the Meadow Lark to the plains of the West, the Robin and Song Sparrow to Massachusetts, and the White-throated Sparrow to northern New England, the Fox Sparrow is to the bleak regions bordering the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At all hours of the day, in every kind of weather late into the brief summer, its voice rises among the evergreen woods filling the air with quivering, delicious melody, which at length dies softly, mingling with the soughing of the wind in the spruces , or drowned by the muffled roar of the surf beating against neighboring cliffs. To my ear the prominent characteristic of its voice is richness. It expresses careless joy and exultant masculine vigor , rather than delicate shades of sentiment, and on this account is perhaps of a lower order than the pure, passionless hymn of the Hermit Thrush ; but it is such a fervent , sensuous, and withal perfectly-rounded carol that it affects the ear much as sweetmeats do the palate, and for the moment renders all other bird music dull and uninteresting by comparison.

Although the Fox Sparrow sings with joy and vigor, it seems shyer and more reclusive than most sparrows. It often feeds alongside juncos on roadsides. As we drive past and flush them, we recognize the junco by its white tail streamers, and the Fox Sparrow by its bright rusty tail. But when it lands in the woods, it sits perfectly still in a conifer branch biding its time until we retreat.

In my yard, only one or two Fox Sparrows come to the open area beneath my main feeder. They are always conspicuous because of the intense way that they scratch the ground, but I enjoy just as much the ones hiding way in back, picking up the sunflower seeds I set on the ground beneath my big spruce tree. Under cover, they seem happier and more comfortable than in the open, and they’re probably less likely to be taken by the neighborhood Merlins. But hiding or right out where we can see them, these vigorous, chunky birds enlarge our view of sparrows, helping us to understand why God Himself takes note of them and would mourn their passing.