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 is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018