Descriptions of Fox Sparrows breeding in Oregon

Thanks to Mike Patterson for creating the sonograms.

Thick-billed form

Overview: The common breeding form in the central and northern Cascades (probably Passerella iliaca fulva, but fulva not recognized by Pyle. He would call this P.i. megarhyncha):

Locations: Cascade Mountains of Linn, Marion, Clackamas, Hood River, Wasco, Jefferson, and Deschutes Cos.

Description: A large sparrow; slightly larger than a Golden-crowned Sparrow; large bill, eye; flattish crown; ample tail; head and back grayish-brown, unstreaked; tail reddish-brown; wings brown; underparts white, sparsely spotted with large dark brown inverted chevrons.

Bill large, especially the lower mandible; sharply angular, culmen not noticeably curved. Upper mandible dark gray-brown to black; lower mandible pale bluish-gray or colorless horn. Eye dark, large and prominent on face. Some white feathers around eye. Some with wispy white eyebrow feathers. Ear coverts mottled brown and white. Some brown mottling on forehead. Dark brown, thin, malar stripe. White submoustachial stripe, thin, sprinkled with brown. Throat white, mostly unmarked. Crown, sides of neck, back, and upper rump grayish or grayish-brown, unstriped, merging smoothly into brown on scapulars and rump. Tail brown with reddish-brown on central tail feathers, especially near the base. Wings brown with reddish on tertials. No wingbars. Underparts white; scattered, inverted chevrons of blackish-brown across upper breast and sides converging into large central breast spot. Legs and feet dark blackish-brown. Claws quite long-especially the hind claws.

Habitat: Found in dense Ceanothus scrub on the west slope of the Cascades from 3000-5000 feet elevation, perhaps higher, but higher locations not visited. Manzanita is often mixed in. They were present in Ceanothus (Snowbush) and Golden Chinquapin scrub at 1900 and 2700 feet elevation Near Green Point Upper Res., Hood River Co., only 4 miles from the Columbia River. Such habitat exists from 5-12 years following a burn or clearcut, longer on well-drained soils of pumice, rock, or ash. Also exists more or less permanently in extensive brushy areas along dry rocky slopes at the base of rocky outcroppings. Sparrows occur until conifers reach about 15 years old and have nearly crowded out all deciduous bushes. Does not occur in lower rhododendron patches.

Call: Often indistinguishable from White-crowned Sparrows (pugetensis) sharing same habitat, a loud, slightly metallic, "tseep," "tsip," or "zhink."

Song: Highly variable mixture of clear notes, buzzes, and musical trills. Sometimes includes phrases from other bird's songs. Five to 7 seconds in duration.

Most frequently, song begins with 3 clear whistled notes: "sweet, clear, tree," these followed by a buzzy "treeeee" note, then a slow trilled "teer-teer-teer-teer," and then a faster trill or jumble of notes: "te-ree-a-a-a-a," and often ending with a robin-like "wrut-wrut."

"sweet, clear, tree, treeeee, teer-teer-teer-teer, te-ree-a-a-a-a, wrut-wrut"

Much individual variation:
"ter-sweet, clear,..."
"sweet, clear, sweet-sweet-sweet"
"sweet, clear, tree, treeeee, teer-teer-teer" (Bewick's Wren-like)
"sweet, clear, treeeee, rit-rit-rit-tereee" (Song Sparrow-like)
"clear, sweet, sweet, clear, tree, treeeee,... wrut-wrut"
"quick, three, beers, tree,..." (calling back and forth with an Olive-sided Flycatcher) (June 1998).

Song 1: Song of Fox Sparrow (fulva) from Lava Lake, Linn County, Oregon in July 2002.
"cheer, clear, treeter-treeter, tree, reeta-reeta-tew, ti-ti-ti"
play Fox Sparrow song
(ignore Red-breasted Nuthatch calls which have been edited out of the sonogram)

Song 2: A very similar song by the same bird:
"sweep, tu-reep, clear, treeter-treeter, tree, trip, reeta-reeta-tew" (final sliding "tew" (as 4th from end in Song 1) is not in the sonogram).
play Fox Sparrow song

Song 3: A very different song by the same bird
"cheer, sweet-sweet, clear, reer-reer-eaaa, wrut, wrut." Song ends with robin-like "wrut-wrut."
play Fox Sparrow song

Thick-billed form variant

Overview: This drawing represents birds seen above the south side of Little Badger Forest Camp, Mt. Hood Nat'l Forest, Wasco, Co. on July 13-14, 2001. When observed, the bird was thought to perhaps be a Slate-colored because of the small bill and clear gray head. Sparse spots on underparts and voice seem to rule this out. There is wide variation in bill size and the amount of brown and gray in the upperparts of fulva, but I thought this example to be extreme.

Location: On the top of the plateau on the south side of Little Badger Creek above Little Badger Forest Camp, Mt. Hood Nat'l Forest. This is about 10 miles west of Tygh Valley at approximately 2600 feet elevation. Similar birds were seen near Cache Creek, Deschutes Co. in May 2002.

Plumage description: The outstanding features of these birds were their clear, unmarked, blue-gray heads and back, sharply contrasting with reddish-brown wings and tail. The breast had an isolated heavy central spot, but was rather sparsely peppered otherwise, with tiny dark spots that became two heavy streaked lines along the sides and flanks. The bill appeared rather small--especially the height--and the smooth gray head appeared large in comparison. There was no eyering, but there was a suggestion of a white "horn" above and in front of each eye. The wing coverts formed an extensive foxy-orange panel. Likewise, the upper tail coverts and the entire upper surface of the tail were rusty. There were no wingbars.

Habitat: Widely scattered scrubby oaks and Ponderosa Pine about 20 years old in otherwise open rangeland, heavily grazed. The primary ground cover was a brushy plant with small, oval leaves, and lots of stems (perhaps buckbrush Ceanothus). On most of the plateau it was grazed to only 2 feet tall, but near the edge of the steep, and heavily vegetated, river canyon it grew to 4 or 5 feet tall. This is where the Fox Sparrows were.

Call Note: Similar to White-crowned Sparrow: "tsip" and "tink." These call notes would seem to eliminate Slate-colored.

Song: Did not sing.

Thick-billed form

Overview: Rather common on Steens Mt.:

Description: Apparently identical in plumage to birds in central Oregon Cascades. Large bill; brownish-gray upperparts; thin eyering; mottled brown and white cheek and ear coverts; rufous wing coverts, tertials, and rump; wing and tail otherwise brown.

Locations: Steens Mt. About 1 mile east of Fish Lake on ridge overlooking McCoy Creek Canyon, 7438 feet elevation.

Habitat: Scrubby aspen groves with sparse understory of wild rose, on canyon edge. Used tip of aspen (15-20 feet tall) for singing perch.

Call Note: "tsip"

Song: Simple, evenly-spaced sliding whistles ending in a short buzzy note (lacking final two trills and jumbled notes of Cascades' birds):
"sweet, clear, clear, swee, treeeee" (July 2001)
A slightly more complex song:
"sweet, clear, clear, swee, teer-teer, swee, treeeee" (July 2001)

Thick-billed form

Overview: Siskiyous: This is (P.i. megarhyncha).

Description: Apparently identical in plumage to birds in central Oregon Cascades. Large bill; brownish-gray upperparts; thin eyering; mottled brown and white cheek and ear coverts; rufous wing coverts, tertials, and rump; wing and tail otherwise brown.

Locations: Josephine and Jackson counties. Typical locations include King Mt., Jackson Co., and Onion Mt. and Little Grayback Mt., Josephine Co.

Habitat: Clearcuts replanted 5-15 years old with extensive Snowbush (Ceanothus), Golden Chiquapin, and manzanita.

Call Note: "tsip" as a White-crowned Sparrow.

Chip notes of Fox Sparrow (megarhyncha) in SW Oregon (left), California Towhee in SW Oregon (center), and White-crowned Sparrow (pugetensis) in NW Oregon (right). While almost identical, to my ear the "tsip" of Fox Sparrow is midway between the lower, harder, metalic "chink" of California Towhee and the higher, softer, "zink" of White-crowned Sparrow.
play Fox Sparrow chip note
play California Towhee chip note
play White-crowned Sparrow chip note


Song 1: Song of Fox Sparrow (megarhyncha) from Little Grayback Mt., Josephine County, Oregon in July 2002.
"sweet, clee, seeer, ttrree-tee-tee, rit-rit-rit-rit-rit-wrut-wrut." Ends with robin-like "wrut-wrut."
play Fox Sparrow song

Song 2: A song by the same bird:
"sweet, wheeer, teer-teer, chi-ter-ter-ter, wreet, trrrrrrr." Song ends with a wheezy robin-like "wreet" and a wren-like trill.
play Fox Sparrow song

Song 3: A song by the same bird
"sweet, clee, djeery-djeery, tory-tory-tor, ti-ti-ti-ti, keer" followed after a second by a "tsink" call note (not on sonogram). Ends song with flicker-like "keer" and has middle notes similar to Canyon Wren. (Squirrel call in background.)
play Fox Sparrow song

Song 4: A song by the same bird
"cheer, brr, ter-ter-ter-ter-ter, treeeeee, dzeeep, kyip." Song ends with a robin-like "kyip."
play Fox Sparrow song

photo by Matt Hunter
photo by Matt Hunter

Slate-colored form

Overview: Birds on the Upper Owyhee River drainage in extreme eastern Malheur Co. These are P.i. schistacea. The scans here are of birds at a nest over a creek videotaped by Matt Hunter in 1999.

Locations: Upper Owyhee canyons near Idaho border.

Plumage Description: The obvious features of this bird are the extensive flat gray head and back with foxy wings and tail. The bill is small and the lower mandible is colorless bluish-gray. Breast spots are rather large and blackish, forming stripes and a central spot. Faint wing bars.

Habitat: "Riparian canyons with willow, red-osier dogwood, wild rose, snowberry, and current."--LeRoy Fish.

Call Note: A "tchip" note, mid-way between the "chap" or "check" of Sooty and the "tsip" or "zink" of Thick-billed.

Play call note

Song: Clear sliding whistled phrases followed by trills and buzzy notes.

Song 1: "reap pe-wur teer-teer tree-tree-trreee rit-ritttear"
Play song 1

Song 2: "tirp we-ur tree trreee chrrr rit-rit"
Play song 2

Back to Breeding Fox Sparrows in Oregon...

Greg Gillson
2367 S Dogwood Street
Cornelius, OR 97113

1-888-673-7890 PIN 0060 (outside NW Oregon)
503-844-6876 (Greater Portland calling area)

to The Bird Guide home page