Whistling Fox Sparrows
By Noreen O’Brien, Purchasing, Marine Parts Express
So, have you had visiting Fox Sparrows? The early morning chorus of trilling juncos, chattering goldfinches and melodious Purple Finches has had an additional tune piped in this past week by the Fox’s rich, whistled tune—it’s one of the best parts of spring. I hear it and I’m transported back to Alaska immediately, which is the first tip I receive on the bird’s id as I run through the Rolodex of bird song in my brain.
Not only will a Fox Sparrow sing at dawn, it will belt out its tune all day, even during the darkest, dreariest day, filling the air with sounds of what some have described as clear musical notes alternating with sliding whistles. Something of a ventriloquist, look for this inconspicuous bird perching close to the trunk of a spruce tree, perhaps a few feet down from the top.
And, like other sparrows, Fox are frequently found at the edge of a wet wood in thick, brushy piles of leaf litter. With their rather long legs and big feet, they perform a double backward hop routine, overturning the dead leaves in search of insects, seeds and weeds. If startled while feeding, this sparrow flies a short distance low to the ground in search of cover. Watch for the flicking of its long red tail as it flies off.
With that rusty red tail and rump, it might be easy to confuse a Fox Sparrow with a Hermit Thrush. Both have marked white breasts: the Fox Sparrow has rusty-red inverted “Vs” on its breast, which can form a central tie tack, whereas the Hermit Thrush has rounder spots and no central spot. The Fox Sparrow has gray streaking on its back and gray at the neck and face areas; the thrush is more evenly brown on the head and back. Note also the two-toned conical bill of the Fox Sparrow.
One day, I spotted on odd leaf on the ground. Upon investigation, I discovered a dead Fox Sparrow. Bereft at the sight, I picked it up and felt the surprisingly heavy weight of this bird. It wasn’t warm, but not quite cold either. It hadn’t been dead for too long. The bird did not have a broken neck and I’m not quite sure what actually killed it.
Examining the carcass closer, it was evident that the bird had crashed into a window. Both mandibles of its bill tip were mangled and twisted, smashed to one side. Birds’ beaks are made of keratin, just as our fingernails and toenails are, and they are relatively soft. A careful look at the sparrow’s feathers—several were caught in the bird’s feet, was it scratching when it was startled into flight and crashed?—showed exquisite markings of a gray base, a white center, and rusty red at the tip. What a beautiful bird.
Meanwhile, keep an eye and an ear out for Fox Sparrows over the next couple of weeks. They will be gone and on their breeding grounds from northwestern Maine into Canada by late April or early May and we will not have an opportunity to see or hear this russet-colored whistler again until late fall.
The old sailor’s adage that one can whistle up a good wind leaves all of us whistling along with the Fox Sparrow for the opportunity to help our customers have a great boating season. Call Marine Parts Express toll free at 877.621.2628.
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March 21, 2011 / Noreen O'Brien / 1
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