A Closer Look: Bill Color Variation in Fox Sparrows

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This winter season "Sooty" Fox Sparrow shows the fairly bright corn-yellow mandible that I expect to see on this Fox Sparrow type. (Photo by Glenn Bartley). 

It remains to be determined whether Fox Sparrow is one highly variable species or up to four closely-related species (Zink and Kessen 1999). Even within the four major subspecies groups the 18 recognized subspecies of "Red, Thick-billed, Slate-colored", and "Sooty" Fox Sparrows present  so much individual plumage variation as to cause birders to scratch their heads in befuddlement. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, one can readily see 20+ Sooty Fox Sparrows during a winter day, with no two looking exactly alike in terms of plumage (Mlodinow et al. 2012). 

My experience with Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows led me to believe that their most consistent aspect is bill coloration, which consists of mostly dark horn color on the maxilla and bright corn-yellow along the basal cutting edge of the maxilla and most of the mandible. I've always thought that this bill coloration was universal among Sooty and Red Fox Sparrows, with Slate-colored Fox Sparrows showing lesser amounts of duller yellow on the bill.

Most of the Thick-billed Fox Sparrows in the images that I examined showed no yellow on the bill. It should be noted that all the photos I found were taken during the spring and summer months, when their over-sized bills are a uniform grayish horn color. My experience with Thick-billed Fox Sparrow is limited to seeing birds on their central Oregon breeding grounds (May-July). None of the Thick-billeds that I've seen or photographed have shown yellow on the bill. This article does include one March photo of a Thick-billed (see below) and it shows a restricted area of dull yellow on the lower mandible. Additionally, Kimball Garrett told me of an Allan Brooks painting of a "Yolla Bolly Fox Sparrow" (references P. i. brevicauda) that was painted from a January specimen taken in Los Angeles County. Brooks' illustration shows "bright yellow-orange on the basal two-thirds" of the mandible according to Garrett.

A day spent sorting and captioning Fox Sparrow images for the BirdFellow  Social Field Guide has revealed that bill color–at least in Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows–may change seasonally, adding another confounding element to sorting them out. 

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This "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow photographed in May (California) shows the deep all-grayish horn-colored bill typical of this subspecies group. (Photo by Robert Royse). 

Robert Royse, Mark Szantyr, and Glenn Bartley have provided BirdFellow with a nice assortment of spring and summer season images, which depict all four subspecies groups. Several of Royse's Sooty and Red Fox Sparrows were photographed on their northerly breeding grounds. It came as a surprise to me that these birds show no yellow on the mandible. I also found several early spring (March-April) images in which it appears that some of the bright yellow–typically seen on winter birds–was absent or already noticeably faded. On birds photographed in early spring, the base of the mandible had in some cases faded to a paler bone or horn color.

Conversely, photos of fall and winter Fox Sparrow taken  by Szantyr, Bartley and others, along with those found elsewhere online, generally show birds with bright corn-yellow on the mandible and along the cutting edge of the maxilla. I looked to the Birds of North America Online account for enlightenment on this topic. Weckstein et al. (2002) suggest that the seasonally variability in the bill color of Fox Sparrows needs of further study, a sentiment echoed by Garrett (pers. comm).

If one peruses the more popular illustrated field guides of North American birds (Sibley, National Geographic, and Peterson), it is easy to conclude that Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows have entirely yellow mandibles or even mostly yellow bills. Similarly, the David Beadle plate that accompanies Zink and Kessen (1999) depicts Reds and Sooties with all-yellow mandibles. The Beadle, Sibley, and Peterson illustrations of Slate-colored Fox Sparrows show them to have duller yellow on the mandible, while the 5th edition National Geographic Guide plate includes a Slate-colored with no apparent yellow on the bill. 

The Beadle plate and the illustrations of Thick-billed Fox Sparrow in all three of these guides depict them as having no yellow on their bills. They are shown to have more grayish or dusky horn-colored bills. Beadle's plate along with the Peterson and National Geographic guides show this subspecies group to have a somewhat bi-colored bill, with the maxilla being noticeably darker than the mandible. I have some poor quality photos of Thick-billeds with distinctly two-toned bills (darker upper mandibles) that were taken in June 2009 on the east side of the Cascades in Jefferson County, Oregon. Sibley's illustration of Thick-billed Fox Sparrow shows it to have a mostly uniform grayish bill with a darker culmen, closely matching the bill pattern of the bird in the Royse photo above. Zink and Kessen (1999) and Garrett et al. (2000) discuss a cline that exists between the Thick-billed and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows, which frequently hybridize along the the "Great Basin-Sierra Nevada interface." Both articles describe birds in the White Mountains of California that are morphologically intermediate in terms of bill size and plumage.

It is important to point out that artists charged with creating a single example of a particular species or subspecies for a field guide are left to present a general representation that approximates what you or I perceive when we see these taxa in the field. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect their illustrations to be letter perfect, or to capture the full range of variation that we might see. Both Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows are northerly nesters, whose breeding ranges are far-removed from where most of us spend our time birding. Those who buy and use these field guides are mostly observing Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows on their wintering grounds, hence the illustrations in these guides represent what we are likely to see outside of the breeding season. Below is a series of head only crops of various subspecies of Fox Sparrows. My apologies to the photographers for the heavy cropping of these images, which compromises the quality of their otherwise wonderful uncropped images. 

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From to to bottom, the four Sooty Fox Sparrows above were photographed in Alaska in May (by Robert Royse), in Barrington, New Hampshire during January (by Mark Szantyr), at an unknown location in January (by Glenn Bartley), and near Clatskanie, Oregon during April (by Dave Irons). Note that the summer bird has no yellow on the bill, while both of the winter season birds show extensive yellow, particularly on their mandilbles. Interestingly, the April bird has a bill that appears to be in transition, presumably losing the yellow and becoming more horn-colored.

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From top to bottom, the three Red Fox Sparrows above were photographed in Manitoba during June (by Robert Royse), in New England during April (by Mark Szantyr) and in Hamden, Connecticut in March (by Mark Szantyr). The top two birds–photographed April or later–lack yellow on the bill, while the March bird has conspicuous yellow on the bill. Also note that the bird from Connecticut, where P. i. iliaca is the presumed subspecies, is unlike the other New England bird in appearance and looks more like the Manitoba bird, which is presumed to be P. i. zaboria. Szantyr and Louis Bevier compared the appearance of this bird to other photos and museum specimens of P. i. zaboria and came away convinced that it is likely of that subspecies.


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The bird above was thought to be a Thick-billed Fox Sparrow by Robert Royse when he photographed it in California's San Diego Mtns. during March. To my eye the bill on this bird seems, perhaps, not quite deep enough for Thick-billed, but making such determinations from photos is a challenge. Note that the yellow on the bill of this bird is more limited and has a slightly greenish cast and the base of the mandible is horn-colored.

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This Thick-billed Fox Sparrow was photographed on territory in California during May (by Robert Royse). It shows no yellow on the bill, which matches the bill pattern of the May/June birds shown above. 

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The Slate-colored Fox Sparrow in the two images above was photographed in California during March (by Robert Royse). Note that the yellow on the mandible does is a bit duller than the yellow exhibited by Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows and it doesn't extend all the way to the base of the bill.

Although this small sample seems to suggest that northerly breeding Fox Sparrows (Red and Sooty) have bright yellow mandibles away from breeding season and show more uniform gray to pinkish horn-colored bills on the breeding grounds, there is, to date, no solid science to support this idea. In multiple captions Zink and Kessen (1999) emphasize that bill coloration is not reliable as a  field mark when separating Fox Sparrow subspecies or subspecies groups. It would be great to hear from folks with experience handling these birds at banding stations to learn if they notice any seasonal variations in bill color. One thing seems clear, this question warrants further investigation. I will certainly be looking more closely at Sooty Fox Sparrows in my area, particularly the latest departing northbound and earliest arriving southbound individuals.

This article would not have been possible without the fine collection of photos provided by Glenn Bartley, Robert Royse, and Mark Szantyr. Their images were a pleasure to look at and inspired me to delve into this question further. Kimball Garrett offered a prompt and informative response to several questions that I posed to him and confirmed my notions about some of the taxa with which I'm less familiar. Szantyr and Royse both responded promptly to my queries and provided valuable additional information about the circumstances of their respective observations. Royse was also able to supply higher resolution head shots for a couple of his birds.

Literature Cited:

Garrett, K. L., J. L. Dunn, and R. Righter. 2000. Call notes and winter distribution in the Fox Sparrow complex. Birding 32:412-417.

Mlodinow, Steven G., Bill Tweit and David Irons. 2012. Photo Essay: The Sooty Fox Sparrows of Washington's Puget Trough. Birding Vol. 44:2 46-52.

Weckstein, Jason D., Donald E. Kroodsma and Robert C. Faucett. 20o2. Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds. cornell.edu/bna/species/715doi:10.2173/bna.715

Zink, R. M. and A. E. Kessen. 1999. Species limits in the Fox Sparrow. Birding 31:508-517.

Other sources on this topic:

I recommend taking a look at a lively and informative exchange that occurred on the ID Frontier's listserv back in 1997. Joining in this discussion were the likes of Louis Bevier, P. A. Buckley, Jon Dunn, Kimball Garrett, Alvaro Jaramillo, David Sibley and Mark Szantyr. Greg Gillson created a link to this thread, which can be viewed at: http://thebirdguide.com/fox/frontier.htm

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Nice run-down on this topic. One caption jumped put at me: “and in New England during August (by Mark Szantyr)”. Is this accurate? Red Fox is a very very local breeder in Maine and has beed found breeding once or twice in New Hampshire. The photo does not look like a bird on territory. I assume this is a caption typo?

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According to the label on Mark’s photo, it was taken on 23 August. I was a bit surprised by this early date for a presumed southbound bird. I know that he has gone up to Maine to bird at times and this bird may have been photographed there. I will contact him for the particulars. Any thoughts on the departure/arrival times for this species in “New England?” Guess I could look at eBird.

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The date for the zaboria-like Fox Sparrow from Hamden, New Haven Co., CT was 6 March 2007. It was at the home of local birder, Andy Brand. Andy recognized it as different from the typical wintering illiaca Fox Sparrows at his feeder. The bird was present throughout that season.

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Since posting this article I have received a couple more enlightening photos from Allen Chartier in Michigan and Brandon Green in Eugene, Oregon. Chartier’s image, a Red Fox Sparrow (presumed “iliaca”) photographed just in the last couple of days. Its fading bill is bone/horn-colored at the base of the lower mandible, pale yellow (faded from normal mid-winter tone) in the middle of the lower mandible and horn-colored towards the tip of the lower mandible. This pattern is near-identical to the other April images that I’ve collected and viewed.

Green’s image, taken in Eugene, Oregon on 1 May 2011, shows a Sooty Fox Sparrow (subspecies unknown) with an almost entirely pinkish bone/horn-colored bill. The middle of the lower mandible is only slightly yellowish (much paler than the yellow on April birds). As I collect more and more images, I’m starting to see a somewhat consistent timeline for the bill color transition that occurs in Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows March-May. Clearly, a lot more systematic exploration of this question needs to occur before arriving at solid conclusions, but it seems pretty evident that there is a seasonal bill color change that occurs in Red and Sooty Fox Sparrows and, perhaps, the Slate-colored and Thick-billed subspecies as well that results in the bill losing any yellow coloration and becoming pinkish or grayish bone/horn colored during the breeding season. I still need to collect more photos of late summer/fall birds to get a handle on the transition back to yellow on the bill.

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As a bird bander in Vancouver, BC, I see a lot of Fox Sparrows from September to May and I can confirm that at least with Sooty Fox Sparrows there is a seasonal change in bill colour.

Birds that arrive in the fall have yellow along their lower bill and at the bottom of the upper bill. This colour is maintained through the winter. A gradual change, usually starting around late February, to a pinkish-gray colour (lighter than the rest of the bill) occurs. I’ll have to go back over my photos to see the extent and variation there is of this change. But, having reviewed photos of birds on the breeding grounds in Alaska and northern BC in June/July I can confirm that those birds have completely lost the yellow in their bill by the breeding season.

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