The fox sparrow kicks its feet for food – Chicago Tribune


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On a cold December day, a handsome sparrow with burnt reddish-brown tail kicked its feet in the leaves on the ground just outside the window. There’s only one sparrow regularly seen in Illinois with that remarkable coloration. A binocular view proved me right. It was a fox sparrow.

Roughly 25 species of sparrows visit Illinois some time throughout the year whether during migration, for the winter or to breed. Birders call them little brown jobs because they can be difficult to identify. Not so, the fox sparrow.

Don’t confuse a fox sparrow with the ubiquitous house sparrow, which isn’t actually a sparrow at all, but a weaver finch introduced from Europe. The male house sparrow has a gray crown, chestnut behind the eyes and on the neck, black throat and white underparts. Here’s a link to see what this species looks like: It’s almost certain you’ve seen one, and likely many more, in your yard.

The fox sparrow, which appears in my yard as a single maybe once or twice a year, has a black and yellow bill, complemented by a burnt-reddish-brown crown and cheek sandwiching a gray eyebrow. The tail is also burnt-reddish brown, and its white breast and sides are decorated with burnt-reddish brown streaks. It gets its name because that color supposedly resembles that of a red fox. There are several different races of fox sparrows, each with different color patterns that live throughout the nation. The fox sparrow that graces our Illinois yards and wild places is the loveliest.

The fox sparrow has a quirky way of feeding like some other sparrow species do. It kicks its feet in the leaves and other debris to disturb its food of insects such as beetles, caterpillars, ants, spiders or whatever is lurking there. Cornell Lab describes this feet-kicking endeavor as a “double scratch involving a hop forward and an immediate hop back.” Often, you’ll see it scratching both feet backward through the leaf litter.

Plenty of goodies get scared up by this maneuver, and even as the temperatures drop, there’s a warm microclimate beneath the leaf layer where some prey is still available.

That’s why this hardy sparrow sometimes hangs…