Crawlies with Cri: Sooty fox sparrow

(Photos by Christy Solo for the Illinois Valley News)

Sooty fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

This week Crawlies takes flight with a spotty hopper. Meet the sooty fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca).
While all fox sparrows are foxy, not all fox sparrows are sooty. There are four subspecies of fox sparrow: red, sooty, thick-billed (or large-billed) and slate colored. The sooty ssp. is the one you’ll see in our area. Sooty can be found in Eastern Oregon and thick-billed can be found along the Oregon/California border.
Pictured along with our sooty is the red fox sparrow which lives in the Eastern United States and gave the sparrow its “foxy” moniker – and you can easily see why.
Fox sparrows look similar to song sparrows and can often be found together in mixed sparrow flocks in our winter yards.
Fun Fact: Our local song sparrows also look quite different from Eastern song sparrows. Like the fox, our songs are a darker, richer shade.
Song sparrows are smaller than fox sparrows and have light gray faces with a clean brown stripe running from behind their eye to their neck. Song sparrows also sing. A lot. Even in winter.
Un-fun Fact: Fox sparrows have a beautiful song, but we won’t hear it because they only sing during mating season and our sooty fox head up to British Columbia and even to Alaska to breed.
So, if they’re singing, it’s a song sparrow; if they’re just hop, hop, hopping around in leaf litter or low shrubs, they’re a fox sparrow.
Fox sparrows look for food in soil and leaf litter using their patented “double-scratch” hop. One hop forward and a quick hop-scratch back. This little “dance” kicks up seeds and will scare up more lively insect prey. It’s also adorable to watch.
During winter months fox sparrows eat a mix of seeds, berries and arthropods, such as beetles, fly larvae, caterpillars, ants, bees, scale insects, spiders, millipedes and mollusks. Fox sparrows will visit bird feeders and will happily chow down on most inexpensive seed mixes and like all seed-eating birds love black oil sunflower seeds.
Fox sparrows don’t rock awesome camouflage coloration for no reason. They spend most of their time in the underbrush or deep shadows under trees. It’s always a treat when one pops up to have a look around and you get to look back.
While foxes are excellent flyers, they have to be to make their migratory journey. They don’t fly very far on a day to day basis. They’ll make short flights in between cover as they forage during the day and will happily spend most of their day scratching around a good foraging spot.
When they pair up to breed in the summer months, they will fly around their two and one-half acre territory to guard it from interlopers.
Fun Facts: While most birds spend days or even weeks constructing their nests, foxes are super speedy builders. Females do the nest construction and can put the nest together, right down to the soft feathered lining in one day. They could have their own series on HGTV!
Fox sparrow fossils from the Pleistocene (about 11,000 years ago) have been found in the La Brea tar pits in California.
Foxes live a fairly solitary life in winter, though they will hang out with one or maybe two other foxes and happily join in larger groups of mixed sparrows.
The oldest recorded fox sparrow was 10 years and four months of age. Tough little birds.