Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE FOX-COLOURED FINCH.
FRINGILLA ILIACA, Merrem.
PLATE CLXXXVI.--MALE AND FEMALE.
Although the Fox-coloured Sparrow visits us regularly at the approach of
winter, it merely remains during the few months of the year which are too severe
in the more northern parts of our continent, where it resides at all other
periods. It wanders, however, as far southward as the lower parts of Louisiana,
is also met with in Kentucky, and in the countries bordering on the Ohio,
Missouri, and Mississippi, and visits the Floridas, Georgia, the Carolinas, and
in short every State south of Massachusetts. In the latter State, and in that
of Maine, few individuals are seen after its passage through these districts,
late in October.
In the northern parts of America, where it breeds, it replaces the Towhe
Bunting, so abundant in our middle States, where it delights us with its song.
To that species the Fox-coloured Sparrow comes next in size, while it greatly
surpasses it in its musical powers.
While in the United States, it lives retired, and separates itself from
most other species. Little flocks, consisting of a family or two, take
possession of some low well-covered thicket, by the side of some clear
streamlet, where they spend the winter unmolested, searching for food among the
fallen and withered leaves, or among the roots and dead branches of trees.
Should a warm morning dawn on their retreat, the male birds directly ascend to
the middle branches of the brambles, and in a soft under tone cheer the females
with their melodies. At all other times they remain comparatively silent,
merely emitting a note to call each other, or to assure their little family that
all is safe around them. Towards spring a kind of bustle takes place in their
camp: the males, already warmed with affection and love, renew their attentions
to their mates; new connections are formed by the young; their song becomes much
improved; and the passer by may here and there see a pair moving slowly and
cautiously towards the land whence they had emigrated some months before.
Follow these birds wherever you will, you invariably find them not in deep
woods, but along the fences, and amid patches of briars and tangled underwood,
which at all times seem so pleasing to them. They traverse the whole of the
Union by day, resting here and there awhile, to watch the gradual improvement of
They enter the British Provinces full of joy, and lavish of song. Many are
well pleased to remain there, but the greater number pursue their course to
revisit the Magdeleine Islands, Newfoundland, and the country of Labrador. There
you find them in every pleasant dell, where no sooner have they arrived than
each searches for a safe retreat in which to place its nest. This is in due time
replenished with eggs; and, while the female sits on them with care and anxiety,
her devoted lover chants the blessings they both enjoy.
The flight of this bird is low, rapid, and undulating. While passing over
the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it flies swiftly, at a moderate height, without
uttering any note. They appear to be able to travel to a considerable distance,
without the necessity of alighting, and I have thought that they may
accomplish the passage of the Gulf without resting on any of its islands. As
soon as they alight, they betake themselves to the deepest thickets.
During the breeding season, their plumage has a richness which it does not
exhibit in the winter months, while with us. Indeed some of the males at that
time are so highly coloured as to be of a bright red rather than of a brown
tint; and their appearance, as they pass from one bush to another, or skip from
stone to stone, is extremely pleasing. I have attempted to represent this
colouring in the Plate.
Would that I could describe the sweet song of this Finch; that I could
convey to your mind the effect it produced on my feelings, when wandering on the
desolate shores of Labrador!--that I could intelligibly tell you of the clear,
full notes of its unaffected warble, as it sat perched on the branch of some
stunted fir. There for hours together was continued the delightful serenade,
which kept me lingering about the spot. The brilliancy and clearness of each
note, as it flowed through the air, were so enchanting, the expression and
emphasis of the song so powerful, that I never tired of listening. But, reader,
I can furnish no description of the melody.
While in South Carolina, in January 1834, after I had returned from the
country where this species breeds, I happened, one fair day, to meet with a
groups of these birds. They were singing in concert. Never shall I forget the
impression which their notes made on me: I suddenly stopped and looked around;
for a moment I imagined that I had been by magic transported to the wilds of
Labrador; but how short was the duration of these feelings!--a Hawk sailed over
the spot of their concealment, and in an instant all was silent as the tomb.
The nest of the Fox-coloured Sparrow, which is large for the size of the
bird, is usually placed on the ground, among moss or tall grass, near the stem
of a creeping fir, the branches of which completely conceal it from view. Its
exterior is loosely formed of dry grass and moss, with a carefully disposed
inner layer of finer grasses, circularly arranged; and the lining consists of
very delicate fibrous roots, together with some feathers from different species
of water-fowl. In one instance I found it composed of the down of the
Eider-duck. The period at which the eggs are laid, is from the middle of June
to the 5th of July. They are proportionally large, four or five in number,
rather sharp at the smaller end, of a dull greenish tint, sprinkled with
irregular small blotches of brown. I think that the description given in the
splendid work of my friends SWAINSON and RICHARDSON, of the eggs of this
species, must have been taken from those of the White-crowned Bunting, as it
agrees precisely with eggs which I have found in many nests of that bird.
When one approaches the nest, the female affects lameness, and employs all
the usual arts to decoy him from it. They raise only one brood in the season.
The young, before they depart for the United States, already resemble their
parents, which have by this time lost much of the brilliancy of their colouring.
They leave Labrador about the 1st of September, in small groups, formed each of
a single family. When in that country, and in Newfoundland, I frequently
observed them searching along the shores for minute shell-fish, on which they
Many of these birds are frequently offered for sale in the markets of
Charleston, they being easily caught in "figure-of-four traps!" Their price is
usually ten or twelve cents each. I saw many in the aviaries of my friends Dr.
SAMUEL WILSON and the Reverend JOHN BACHMAN, of that city. To the former I am
indebted for the following particulars relative to this species, part of which I
was myself witness to.
Dr. WILSON, who was almost in the daily habit of visiting my friend
BACHMAN, with whom it was my good fortune to reside while at Charleston, was
fond of talking about birds, many of which he knew more accurately than ordinary
ornithologists are wont to do. "My dear Mr. AUDUBON," he said, "I have several
beautiful Fox-coloured Sparrows in my aviary, but of late some of them have been
killed, and I wish you would tell me by what other birds the murders can have
been committed." I laid the charge first on the Blue Jays; but he replied that
even they appeared as if greatly molested by some other species. A day elapsed,
the Doctor returned, and astonished me not a little by informing me that the
culprit was a Mocking-bird. I went to his house on the 8th of December; and,
while standing on the piazza, we both saw the Mocking-bird alight on one of the
Fox-coloured Sparrows, in the manner of a small Hawk, and peck at the poor bird
with such force as to convince us that its death must soon ensue. The muscular
powers of the Finch, however, appeared almost too much for the master songster
of our woods; it desisted for a moment, out of breath, and we could observe its
pantings; but it did not fail to resume its hitherto unknown character of
tyrant. A servant was despatched to the rescue, and peace was restored; but the
Finch was almost reduced to its last gasp, and shortly after expired. This very
Mocking-bird we strongly suspected of being the individual that had killed a
Blue Jay of exceedingly meek disposition, a few weeks before. It was ultimately
removed into a lonely cage, where it is yet passing its days, perhaps in
The Fox-coloured Finch is found abundantly on the Columbia river. It
breeds in the woody districts of the Fur Countries, up to the 68th parallel.
About Boston it is abundant during summer, generally skulking in the bushes and
avoiding observation. It passes through Massachusetts on its way south in the
first week in November, and returns about the 10th of April. It is very easily
approached, and its note is extremely beautiful.
In this species the palate is moderately ascending, deeply concave, with
two prominent lines, at the meeting of which anteriorly is a small soft
projection. The upper mandible is moderately concave, with a prominent middle
line and two lateral ridges. The width of the mouth is 5 1/2 twelfths. The
tongue is 4 twelfths long, compressed, channelled above, horny, rather obtuse,
somewhat spoon-shaped at the point, as in the Pine Finch. OEsophagus 2 1/2
inches long, its greatest width 4 1/2 twelfths, being slightly dilated towards
the lower part of the neck. The stomach is roundish, 7 twelfths long, 6
twelfths broad; its lateral muscles rather strong, the epithelium tough,
longitudinally rugous. Intestine 9 1/2 inches long, from 3 twelfths to 2
twelfths in width: coeca 3 1/4 twelfths long, 1/2 twelfth in width, 1 inch
distant from the extremity. Trachea 1 inch 8 twelfths long, 1 twelfth in
breadth; the rings 72, and 2 dimidiate, firm; bronchial rings about 15; the
muscles as usual.
Male, 7 1/2, 10 1/2. Female, 7 1/2.
Dispersed in winter throughout the Southern and Western Districts. Breeds
from Nova Scotia to Labrador and the Fur Countries. Rather common.
FOX-COLOURED SPARROW, Fringilla rufa, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. iii. p. 53.
FRINGILLA ILIACA, Bonap. Syn., p. 112.
FRINGILLA (ZONOTRICHIA) ILIACA, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 257.
FERRUGINOUS FINCH, Fringilla iliaca, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 514.
FOX-COLOURED SPARROW, Fringilla iliaca, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. ii. P. 58;vol. v. p. 512.
Adult Male in summer.
Bill short, robust, conical, acute; upper mandible broader than the lower,
almost straight in its dorsal outline, as is the lower, both being rounded on
the sides, and the lower with inflected acute edges; the gap-line nearly
straight, a little deflected at the base, and not extending to beneath the eye.
Nostrils basal, roundish, open, partially concealed by the feathers. Head
rather large, neck shortish; body robust. Legs of moderate length, rather
strong; tarsus shorter than the middle toe; covered anteriorly with a few
longish scutella; toes scutellate above, free, the lateral ones nearly equal;
claws slender, arched, compressed, acute, that of the hind toe rather large.
Plumage compact above, soft and blended beneath; wings short, curved,
rounded, the second, third and fourth quills longest, and nearly equal; the
first and fifth equal; tail longish, even, or slightly rounded.