For the Birds: Fox Sparrows Need Himalayan Blackberries

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Photo by Christine Southwick
by Christine Southwick
Fox Sparrows get their name from their red “foxy color”, especially on their tails. There are four recognized groups: Red, Sooty, Slate-colored, and Thick-billed.

The Fox Sparrows that we have here are called “Sooty Fox Sparrows” and have little or no red on their tails, instead are a rich chocolate brown. Occasionally, State-colored, and Red Fox Sparrows may be seen during migration. The lower bill, called a mandible, is a yellow to yellow-orange, and contrasts with the dark upper bill.

Our Fox Sparrows are very large chunky sparrows that like blackberry brambles, the thicker and denser, the better. Fox Sparrows are seen in this area mainly in the winter time, although some may stay all year round if the habitat is right. They are vigorous two-footed jump-kicking ground-foragers, looking for their favorite seeds and insects. They even make Spotted Towhee look like they are lazy.

Photo by Christine Southwick
The female sits on 3-5 eggs for 12-14 days, and both parents feed the young until after they leave the nest, usually 9-11 days after hatching. The majority of Fox Sparrows in this area breed in higher elevations. Consequently, I have not yet seen a fledgling Fox Sparrow. Since the seasonal movement of Fox Sparrows isn’t well documented, I am helping study these handsome birds by putting colored bands on their legs, as part of a Puget Sound project.

Because they are ground feeders and nesters, feral and pet cats are documented predators.

Our Fox Sparrows and our Song Sparrows are both darker species and people often have trouble telling one from the other. Especially since both forage on the ground. Look for an overly-enthusiastic kicker turning over leaves[Fox Sparrow]. Also look for lots of tail bobbing [Song Sparrow]. 

Here are some other helpful clues:

  • Solid brown heads
  • Yellow mandible contrast with top bill dark
  • Solid looking back
  • Chevrons on whitish breast
  • Gray and brown striped heads with a dark line through the eye
  • Top and bottom bills are both darkish
  • Streaked looking back
  • Stripes on a buffy breast
Song Sparrow. Photo by Christine Southwick
The first impression is usually, “That’s an awfully big sparrow. It is really digging for food.” If you’re lucky you’ll be able to watch it before it darts back into the blackberries. If you have blackberries near your yard, you may be able to entice it into your yard with a bird bath or suet.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards. 


Steve Zemke April 19, 2011 at 8:53 AM  

Your headline ignores a problem associated with Himalyan blackberry plants. Please note the following from the King County noxious weed webpage:
"Himalayan blackberry and evergreen blackberry are Class C noxious weeds on the Washington State Noxious Weed List. ...
Himalayan and evergreen blackberry are European species that are highly invasive and difficult to control. Originally introduced for fruit production, they are now naturalized and widespread throughout the Pacific Northwest.

These invasive blackberry species out-compete native understory vegetation and prevent the establishment of native trees that require sun for germination such as Pacific Madrone, Douglas Fir and Western White Pine. Dense, impenetrable blackberry thickets can block access of larger wildlife to water and other resources (not to mention causing problems for people trying to enjoy parks and natural areas)."

for more information see:

Anonymous,  April 19, 2011 at 10:21 AM  

Fox Sparrows don't "need" Himalayan Blackberries.

This article about Fox Sparrows "needing" Himalayan Blackberries, is a bit misleading. Fox Sparrows are adapted to foraging on the ground in shrubby habitats. It is these shrubby habitats that they need. They indeed use Himalayan Blackberry thickets, but can use native thickets just as well (or better) and had always done so before Himalayan Blackberries were introduced. To say they "need" Himalayan Blackberries is to imply we need to protect the Himalayan Blackberry thickets to protect the Fox Sparrows. We do need to keep a certain amount of the landscape in dense shrubbery for them, but it is likely that a dense shrubbery of natives will support a more diverse group of bugs under them that the Fox Sparrows can find under the leaves there. I indeed saw and heard a Fox Sparrow about a week ago in a beautiful dense thicket of a variety of native shrubs that a friend planted on his property in Queen Anne.

-Stewart Wechsler
Naturalist and Native Habitat Steward

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