Time schedule for the early spring migration & the habits of the fox sparrow

BIRD COLUMN FOR March 21, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

The Time Schedule for the Early Spring Migration
The habits of the fox sparrow

This is the fox sparrow. It will show up this week and some will be migrating through from now until early May.

This beautiful bird in Roger Tory Peterson's painting is indeed a foxy color. The arrows in this painting from Peterson's "Birds of Eastern and Central North America" call your attention to two important field marks for identification: the rusty tail and the central breast spot. ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

In Central New York, the spring arrival of birds from the south begins in March. The first ones to arrive are those that can eat seeds or berries. Those that eat only flying insects have to wait until about April 10.

How do the birds know when to come? Their hormones tell them and it is the length of the daylight that tips off the hormones. From the hormones the birds get a sort of restless urge to head north. Over thousands of years, each species has developed this ability to have the length of the daylight send a signal within the brain to release the hormones on a date appropriate for that species.

About March 1, Male red-winged blackbirds show up and they do well on seeds.

Around the 10th, when the day is about 30 minutes longer, we begin to see robins, bluebirds, killdeer, meadowlarks and turkey vultures.

Berries are eaten by robins and bluebirds. The killdeer must dig up small insects and it puzzles me that they can find enough to get along. Meadowlarks eat lots of insects in the summer, but because they can feed on seeds, they are able to survive here in early March. The turkey vulture's keen sense of smell enables it to find dead animals even if they are covered with snow.

By the 15th of March the day is 15 minutes longer than on the 10th and that is when the female red-winged blackbird arrives along with the phoebe. The latter is a flycatcher, but it arrives a couple weeks before insects are in the air. It can survive because it is the only flycatcher that is able to feed on berries if insects are not flying.

Starting today March 21 and continuing through the week, many new birds will show up. The list includes the harrier, song sparrow, fox sparrow and winter wren. Woodcock should appear and we will see kestrels, kingfishers and snipe.


A new bird on the ground around our feeders will be the fox sparrow. This species first shows up about now in late March and some will be passing through for about a month.

They are on their way to the northern forests of Canada and Newfoundland for the summer. There, they are one of the most common nesting birds. Their nest is on the ground in scrubby thickets and where the trees are stunted. They seldom nest south of the St. Lawrence River.

The fox sparrow is a very attractive member of the sparrow family. It spends the winter from the Gulf of Mexico north to southern Pennsylvania.

We will not see them again until the fall when they return to their winter quarters. Thus there are only two brief times during the year when we have the chance to see the fox sparrow.

The fox sparrow is the largest of the sparrows that we see. The breast is heavily streaked. Like the song sparrow, the streaks come together to form a central spot on the breast. However, the other markings on the fox sparrow are much broader and darker than those of the song sparrow.

Its most distinguishing identifying mark is the rusty-brown red rump and tail. It is this fox-like color that gives it its name.

Like the towhee, it feeds by scratching away the dead leaves in its busy search for seeds and insects. Both feet are used, and it makes quite a commotion in the brush. In fact, one often hears the scratching and rustling in the leaves before actually seeing the bird. It makes so much noise that one suspects the sound is being made by a chipmunk or squirrel.

During the next two or three weeks, you can find the fox sparrow in woods and secluded thickets or among bushes at the edge of a field. It is hard to spot it there on the ground. When disturbed however, the bird will usually fly into the lowest branches of nearby trees and become quite conspicuous and easy to identify. In a moment or two it will return to the ground to scratch around some more.

While it probably will not come to a feeder on a post or a tubular feeder, you can bring it into your feeding area by putting fine grains on the ground. Use cracked corn, millet or crushed sunflower seed.

Most birds are accustomed to feeding on the ground and when a bird first visits your yard that is one place where they are almost sure to come to seeds that you offer.

Years ago, I moved a huge flat rock to a spot outside our big window. It is five feet long and three feet wide and about a foot thick. This was the two and one half ton doorstep to the Morse farm house that occupied this land up until 1940.

I partially buried the rock so that the flat upper surface is about three inches above the lawn. There is room for many birds to feed there at the same time. It is easy to sweep it clean. Of course it is visited by squirrels and chipmunks that can not reach food on the post feeders.

However, it does make it easy for new bird visitors to feed in our yard and that is where I usually see the fox sparrows.

All of the birds due this week and those that have arrived already, are birds that spent the winter in the southern part of the United States. Those that went to Central America and South America are on their way, but none of them arrive here for another two weeks.

Until the next column on April 4 you can get an update on the birds expected by calling 315-472-2111 and when you hear the greeting, punch in 7336. Other bird news is available there too. This message will be updated every few days as things change.

You can also check the announcements section on the left side of the home page of this web site