Apr 10, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2017

All About Chipping Sparrows

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

Come late March or April, we'll once again be cheered by the friendly little single-note tsip of chipping sparrows. We'll also hear their insect-like song as they visit local backyards, including ours, as well as gardens and park areas, looking for suitable nest sites. Fortunately for us, our lot is adjacent to a small, municipal golf course. We're so close, in fact, that many golf course birds appear in our yard, and get counted as backyard birds. So, I have a backyard list of 75 or so birds, which ranges from Baltimore orioles to Cooper's hawks, and from rubythroated hummingbirds to great blue herons—not a bad variety for a backyard.

The golf course has a small pond, a water hazard, which attracts hordes of Canada geese, as well as mallards and barn and tree swallows. During spring and fall migration, the stands of very large oaks and maples attract warblers, vireos, and flycatchers.

But my favorites of all the neighborhood birds, chipping sparrows, prefer the rows of evergreens along the fairways, and the fringe areas that border the greens. All summer long, especially in the morning and evening, chipping sparrows dart in and out of the trees and forage in the grass near the greens. In fact, I almost invariably hear and then see chipping sparrows on a spring, summer, or early fall walk around the course. They also forage for seeds and small insects under the bird feeders in our backyard.

One summer morning, as I headed across our front lawn toward my car, I heard a friendly tsip coming from beneath the large pine tree at the back of our house. As I expected, it was a female chipping sparrow hopping about, closely pursued by her youngster who was begging to be fed. I'd been noticing this mother and offspring duo often in our yard over the previous week or two. With its fluffy appearance, the fledgling actually appeared to be larger than his mother. She dutifully kept him satisfied.

Chipping sparrows are tiny. They measure only 5 to 5½ inches from bill tip to tail tip. The most prominent feature of both male and female adult birds in breeding plumage is their bright rufous cap. Over the eye is a broad white line, and passing right through the eye is a narrower black line. The back is light brown streaked with darker brown. The cheeks, underparts, and rump are a very pale gray. Their tail is long and slightly forked. The crown of nonbreeding adults appears less rufous and is often streaked with brown.

Juvenile "chippies" are streaked with brown on the back, and very faintly streaked underneath. They have a plump kind of fuzzy look in contrast to the parents' sleek, clean-cut appearance. They don't develop rufous in the crown until the following spring. Chipping sparrows molt twice a year, in fall and spring. In autumn, the crisp, clean adult plumage is replaced with more drab shades of pale brown.

The chipping sparrow's song is a series of rapid, high, single-pitched dry chips. Only the male sings, usually from a high perch, as he begins to establish his nesting territory. He continues to sing throughout the breeding season. The song sounds quite similar to the song of the dark-eyed junco, but it is even faster and drier. Each individual male develops a particular version of the basic song, and careful listening will enable you to distinguish individual birds. Some people say chipping sparrows sound like crickets. Their call note is the higher, tsip.

Once you've heard and identified their song, and can distinguish it from insect noises, you won't be able to ignore it. It is often the first bird song I hear when I wake up on a spring morning. Although chipping sparrows most commonly sing from the top of a tree or pole, they can also vocalize while on the ground.

Not everyone has admired chipping sparrows as much as I do. Frank M. Chapman, in his pioneering 1895 work, Birds of Eastern North America, referred to the chipping sparrow's "unattractive appearance" and its song, which he described as "rather high and wiry and frequently running into an insectlike trill—by no means a musical performance."

In Chapman's day, the scientific name for the chipping sparrow was Spizella socialis, but since then it has changed to Spizella passerina. It seems to me that "socialis" suits the bird better, because it brings to mind the chipping sparrow's rather tame and trusting behavior. The birds occasionally come close enough to take food from an outstretched hand.

The males usually arrive at the breeding site a week or so before the female, and they are most likely to turn up at feeders at that time. The sparrows quickly form pairs that stay together throughout nest building, egg laying, and raising of the young. Mating, initiated by the female's wing-fluttering, usually takes place on the ground or on a perch in the early morning.

Chipping sparrows nest in trees, generally evergreens, and in shrubs or vines roughly three to ten feet above the ground. Together, usually in the early morning, the male and female scout about in bushes and shrubs to find a suitable nesting site. Once they agree on a suitable spot, the female builds the nest in three to four days, sometimes traveling a hundred yards or so to find appropriate materials.

The outside of the 4½-inch nest is constructed of grasses, slender stalks, and rootlets. It is then lined with fine hairs or grasses. Chipping sparrows used to prefer horsehair for their nest lining. Because of this behavior, at the turn of the century they were known as "hairbirds." Now that horses are no longer to be counted on in suburban neighborhoods, the birds have adapted to the change in environment by substituting human hair, dog hair, or fine grasses for the nest lining.

The female generally lays two clutches of three or four bluish-green, oval eggs, spotted with chocolate brown at the larger end. She incubates them from 11 to 14 days. The male helps out by flying back and forth, bringing food to the incubating female. He often announces his presence with a chip call.

For the first week or so after the eggs hatch, the female broods the young birds. During this time, the male brings food to his mate and to the youngsters. Both parents share housekeeping duties and keep the nest clean by carrying away fecal sacs.

The fledglings stay in the nest only nine to twelve days. When they have been out of the nest for two days, they are able to fly short distances. In four days, they can fly well. The parents continue to feed them for up to four weeks. Sometimes the parents are still feeding these youngsters while actively making preparations for the second brood of the season. They continue to vocalize throughout the summer, but not with the intensity they display during the nesting period.

As winter turns to spring, we'll look forward once again to waking up to the unmistakable high chipping song, and watch for them as they forage and look for nesting opportunities in our yard.

About Jane Henderson

Jane Henderson is a retired English teacher from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has contributed several stories to Bird Watcher’s Digest.

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