Return to Main Page   Dakota Birder Blog    

Fox Sparrow

Passerella iliaca

Length: 7 inches Wingspan: 11 inches Seasonality: Migrant
ID Keys: Large size for a sparrow, ground-scratching behavior, triangular spots on underparts

Fox Sparrow - Paserella iliacaThe Fox Sparrow is a large, chunky bird which only visits South Dakota during migration.  Somewhat shy birds, they strongly prefer thick vegetation, and are most often seen on the ground as they scratch for food items.  There are a great many color variations depending on geographic area. Most birds in the eastern or northern part of their range have a rich, reddish-brown color (and are sometimes known as the "Red Fox Sparrow"). Moving further to the west, those of the intermountain West of North America have a more uniformly gray back and head that contrasts with a rich rusty tail and rump, and are called the "Slate-colored Fox Sparrow". Those along the North American coast are a dark grayish-brown, and are sometimes referred to as the "Sooty-colored Fox Sparrow". Songs of the various local races are also slightly different.


Prefers brushy areas, primarily thick forest undergrowth.  Can be found in suburban areas, but usually around well-vegetated areas.


Primarily feeds on seeds, especially during migration and the winter.  In the summer, also feeds heavily on insects and spiders.  May also occasionally feed on fruits and berries, and small marine life along the coasts.


Primarily feeds on the ground, often scratching through the leaf litter.  They will often hop or make short flights to move to another foraging location, or when fleeing danger, rather than make longer sustained flights. Fox Sparrows tend to be found alone or in small groups, rather than in large flocks of their own species (although they will join mixed foraging flocks of sparrows).


Non-breeder in South Dakota.  In breeding range, the Fox Sparrow nest is a cup of grasses, weeds, and other plant material, built in a shrub or small tree, usually within 10 feet of the ground.  The female usually lays between 3 and 5 eggs, and she alone incubates them.  When the eggs hatch, both parents help to feed the young.  The young fledge in about 10 days.


The song of a Fox Sparrow is a rich series of whistled notes, with some buzzy edges to some of the notes. Note songs vary between different regions and races of Fox Sparrows. Eastern birds tend to have a richer, more melodic song, while those in the west often have more buzzy and harsh elements amongst the whistled notes. Fox Sparrows also have a hard chek call note.


Summers throughout Canada, Alaska, and higher elevations of the western United States.  Winters throughout the southeastern United States, along the U.S. West Coast, the Southwest U.S., and Mexico.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Fox Sparrow sightings

Similar Species:

The very heavy streaking, as well as their habit of scratching through the leaf litter, distinguish them from some other streaked sparrow species. Here are the species most likely to be confused with a Fox Sparrow:

Song Sparrow 11 - Melospiza melodia Song Sparrow 7 - Melospiza melodia Savannah Sparrow 19 - Passerculus sandwichensis Vesper Sparrow - Pooecetes gramineus
Song Sparrow Song Sparrow Savannah Sparrow Vesper Sparrow

Bird Feeders: 

Will attend feeders for scattered birdseed and bread crumbs.  Fox Sparrows feed on the ground, and will generally hang out below any feeders, scratching on the ground for seeds that may have fallen. They may also sit on platform feeders.

Conservation Status:

Systematic surveys in recent decades show generally stable populations. They are found across a very broad geographic area, and are common in parts of that range. Overall, there are no serious concerns for Fox Sparrow populations, and the IUCN lists the Fox Sparrow as a species of "Least concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

November 4th, 2007 - Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Fox Sparrow photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Fox Sparrow - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon migrant in the eastern half of the state, rare in the west.  Casual in winter.

Additional Fox Sparrow Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Fox Sparrow 1 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 2 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 3 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 4 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 5 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 6 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 7 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 8 - Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 9 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 10 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 11 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 12 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 13 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 14 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 15 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 16 -  Passerella iliacaFox Sparrow 17 -  Passerella iliaca