May 28, 2015 | Featured in: Midwestern Birds: Backyard Guide

Natty Little Birds: Chipping Sparrows

Chipping sparrows come to backyard feeding stations for mixed seed and cracked corn.

A close look at these natty little birds reveals much to admire in its quiet and confiding ways. As common as they are around backyards and parks, we know surprisingly little about the chipping sparrow's mating habits. One Ontario study showed males not to be monogamous, as assumed, but to mate freely. These birds have the interesting habit of lining their nests with animal hair. They'll also use human hair, but more on that later.

How do I identify it?

A rusty beret and bold, white eyeline are the best field marks of this slender little sparrow. Plain gray underparts, a streaked brown back, and a small, all-black bill set off its striking head markings. The chipping sparrow is one of our smallest sparrows (about 5.5 inches long). It is an underappreciated bird, perhaps because it is so small and unobtrusive. Listen for its rather dry, monotonous trills (sometimes compared to the sound of a sewing machine) as well as its signature chipping notes.

Where do I find it?

In summer, these birds are found throughout Canada and much of the United State. They can be found year-round in the southeastern United States. Before the massive expansion of suburbs, chipping sparrows were limited to open, grassy coniferous forests and parklike woodlands with shrubby understories. Our suburban habitats have just the right mix of short grass, shrubbery, and conifers that chipping sparrows need, so we can enjoy their company on our doorsteps and sidewalks. Although northern populations are strongly migratory, southern birds flock up but tend to stay near their breeding grounds. Winter flocks of up to fifty birds perch in trees, descending en masse to the ground to peck for seeds and then adjourning to treetops before the next feeding bout.

What can I feed or do to attract it?

Chipping sparrows forage primarily on or near the ground, feasting on weed and grass seeds and some smaller fruits. They're easy to please at backyard feeding stations, with black-oil sunflower seeds and cracked corn being among their favorite feeder foods. Chipping sparrows also love mixed seeds, suet, rolled oats, and mealworms. They'll come to hopper-style feeders or feed directly on the ground. Bird feeders aren't the only way to cater to backyard chipping sparrows. These birds also greatly appreciate baked and crushed eggshells strewn on a sidewalk. But it's most fun to offer them human or pet hair clippings. A trip to any salon can net a season's worth, and you may have the pleasure of finding a used nest lined with your own hair—the ultimate vanity piece for the discerning homeowner.

How do they nest?

Planting shrubs and vines—such as creepers and honeysuckles—can increase the chances of these birds nesting in your yard. Female chipping sparrows weave lovely little nests of thin twigs and weed stems, with a center composed of animal hair. These are often concealed in low trees and shrubs, but are easily located by the shrilling of older nestlings. Females incubate the four eggs for around 12 days, and the young leave the nest about 9 to 12 days later. Chipping sparrows feed insects to their young, sometimes fly catching on the wing. Streaky, brown, and nondescript, the young are fed by their parents for three more weeks before forming juvenile flocks.

Written by Bill Thompson III, Midwestern Birds: Backyard Guide features 55 of the most common birds that you are likely to see in backyards anywhere in the Midwest. Regional guides are also available for Southern, Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and Western Birds. Order yours today from the Bird Watcher's Digest Nature Shop! »

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021