Fox Sparrow

Wow. In a weedy area of bushes and withered vines along the edge of an old grove of oaks, I was watching for sparrows, towhees, maybe a thrasher, but so far hadn’t found any in this particular place. It was late in the afternoon, still cold enough so that remnants of snow remained in many places, but the sky was clear and sunny.

Some movement and a glimpse of bright red-brown among the tangled branches caught my eye, and I stopped to look. The sunlight was perfect, coming from behind me, though at first I still could only see glimpses of the bird rustling in leaves on the ground – a bright red-brown tail, then the shape of a big, plump sparrow, and then it turned so that I saw its head and face – elegantly marked in soft gray and red-brown with a large conical bill. It was a Fox Sparrow, a shy and beautiful bird whose appearance lives up to its name, with a mix of red and gray colors that can vary greatly in pattern.

The sparrow quickly became very still, knowing it was watched, half-hidden among the dry brown vines, branches and grasses, but because of the clear light, I now could see it fairly well. It stood with its back to me, looking over its shoulder toward me and nervously flicking all over, just slightly.

The expressive tail was a rich, blazing red-brown, looking especially brilliant in the sunlight. The wings and back were a mix of red-brown, dark-brown and gray; the white breast thickly spotted and streaked with deep red-brown, especially in the center of the chest, and the throat clean white. Blurry streaks of a more muted, reddish brown marked the sides. The whole bird was an alluring mix of colors and patterns so subtle and appealing that I could have watched for a very long time, lost in some realm of imagination.

So I wanted to keep watching, but felt guilty for frightening the reclusive bird and causing it to pause in finding food on such a cold day. After a few moments, I took a step back, to see if it might think I was leaving – and amazingly, it worked. After I took just one small step backward, the sparrow immediately began to move again, and went back to foraging in the leaves as if I’d gone, giving me an even fuller and clearer view.

It moved in a quick and delicate way, with a lightness and energy, and stayed close around this same area to forage, scratching up leaves with its feet in a two-legged hop like a towhee, and feeding.

It was a fascinating sighting, and so nice to have such a clearly lit, close, long view. I think this is only the second Fox Sparrow I’ve seen here in our neighborhood, and the first in at least two or three years. They probably are here more often, and I just overlook them. Although a Fox Sparrow is one of the largest and most colorful of sparrows – dramatic and memorable in appearance – it’s not often seen, because it’s a shy bird that prefers dense, brushy vegetation in the woods. A bird of the far North, it’s only here in the winter months, and usually seems to forage in small groups, with a few other Fox Sparrows, or with other ground-feeding birds like sparrows, towhees and thrushes.

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