To me, Fox Sparrows are a special challenge, even though they are big, boldly 
colored, and easy to ID for a sparrow. We typically only see them here during 
migration because they breed in the boreal forest across Canada and they winter 
in the southeastern US. That narrows the time frame to see them. Their prefered 
habitat is brushy woods where they hide pretty well, and I don’t get to those 
places enough during that window. The folks who have the best luck live next to 
such habitat and set up a bird feeder which spills seed on the ground. There a 
Fox Sparrow will scratch as it eats, sometimes becoming hidden in a small 
crater. I haven’t tried such a feeding station in my yard, as it would be 
awkward to watch from the house. Perhaps I should, because once I did see a Fox 
Sparrow in my yard. That was after a heavy April snowfall. The bird was resting 
in my weed-filled vineyard, but it was probably present because of my next-door 
neighbor’s feeding station, which is annoyingly difficult for me to monitor.  

This year the opportunity to see a Fox Sparrow was greatly expanded when Tom 
Schulenberg found one on New Year’s Day as part of the Christmas Bird Count. It 
was near Freese Road in brushy habitat by the pond at the Liddell Lab. Over the 
next few days several other people saw it, but I failed. That lab has many 
beehives around it, but it also has a bird feeder next ot brushy, damp habitat 
contiguous to woods. I have seen a Fox Sparrow at that feeding station - in the 
usual season - several times over the years. During the holiday break the 
feeder was empty, but afterward it was maintained again, and people started 
finding Tom’s Fox Sparrow below the feeder and in the immediately adjacent 
brush. This would make it much easier to see, I thought. I tried again and 
failed. Then the long holiday weekend came, the feeder was empty, and so was 
the adjacent brush. I went back on the following Tuesday but the conditions 
remained the same: no food, no birds. Perhaps the guy who works there and fills 
the feeder took the whole week off! I went back early on Saturday and found the 
feeders and bushes empty again. But this time I came equipped with a gallon jar 
full of black oil sunflower seeds. I filled the dang feeder myself, kicked 
enough snow off the ground that I’d be able to see the area from a distance, 
poured some extra seed on the ground, and left for the rest of the morning to 
let the local birds consider the situation. 

During the interval I went to the Lab of O feeder garden and had wonderful 
views of another bird we typically only see in migration, a Rusty Blackbird, 
among numerous other birds. That’s a multi-trophic-level bird feeder, with an 
adult Sharp-shinned Hawk who had eaten a male Northern Cardinal the day before, 
the same day the Rusty Blackbird was discovered, but the Sharp-shin was not 
successful (yet) when I saw it. I think it made at least 3 passes while I was 
present. There was also an adult Cooper’s Hawk perched over the Wilson Trail 
North. It not only tolerated the members of the Saturday morning bird walk 
viewing it through my scope, it stayed put while we walked below it and than 
scoped it from the other side as well. Perhaps it is a year-round resident of 
Sapsucker Woods, and recognizes that the people on the trails harmless, so it’s 
a waste of a bird's time and energy to keep fleeing the people. There’s a 
Red-tailed Hawk like that at the Lab also, which tends to sit on lampposts 
around the parking lot.  But I digress. 

I returned to Liddell and had great looks at the Fox Sparrow. I understand that 
several other people saw it as well that afternoon and today too. I now 
recommend that a large mouse-proof container of birdseed be added to every 
birder’s car kit, along with the field guide and binoculars. Some folks have 
tried setting up feeders in places like Summerhill State Forest. I first heard 
about Nelson’s Sparrow (then called Sharp-tailed Sparrow) at Treman State 
Marine Park when Jeff Wells saw one by putting out seed. I know that back in 
the day Arthur Allen kept feeders in Renwick Wildwood. As I drive around I see 
many empty bird feeders at people’s houses and I am tempted to fill them. Or it 
might be a nice gesture to donate birdseed to the people who maintain 
especially productive feeders. 

But about this out-of-season Fox Sparrow at the Liddell Lab. I noticed in Gary 
Kohlenberg’s eBird report that it was not as red as he expected. I, too, found 
that to be the case. Sibley shows the Red Fox Sparrow, which inhabits eastern 
North America as well as Canada and Alaska north and east of the Rockies, to 
have all bright rusty red streaks and spots below, including the malar stripes 
and the big central breast spot. Not so on this bird, whose central spot is 
dark brown and whose other spots and streaks form an interesting gradation from 
small dark brown spots low on the sides, to more chestnut brown farther up the 
sides to slightly redder brown on the upper sides. None of the underside 
streaking is the bright rufous which Sibley shows for the Red type, but nor is 
it all dark brown as Sibley shows for the “Slate-colored” type from the 
interior west. On the other hand the pattern above seems to have 
characteristics of the Red type. It has the rufous pattern on the gray cheek 
and the streaked central back, both of which western birds lack. But the gray 
of the upper back came down and covered the bird’s shoulder/wrist like western 
types, although the greater coverts and wing were rufous. Maybe the bird’s back 
was just fluffed up, and maybe the color below is normal variation, and maybe 
Sibley over-generalized or overstated the red on the Red Fox Sparrow, but maybe 
this is a Red x Slate-colored intergrade. I hope other folks who know more 
about this stuff will take a close look at the bird and offer an opinion. 

—Dave Nutter 





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