Garden Visitor: The Chipping Sparrow
Photo by Melody

Garden Visitor: The Chipping Sparrow

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21)January 22, 2014

Chipping sparrows are among the most commonly seen and heard North American songbirds. They take their name from the sharp chip sound they make as they call to their flockmates. During the winter, as many as 25 to 50 chipping sparrows may forage together as a group.

Gardening picture

In size, the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) is slightly larger than the chickadee. In summer months, this sparrow bears crisp colors, with a frosty gray underside, a white throat and eyebrow, and a black line running across the eye from the beak to the back of the head. Its back is brown with black streaks, and the top of its head is a bright rusty brown. It markings remain much the same in winter, but the coloring becomes more subdued. Males and females look much the same.

Chipping sparrows look very similar to a number of other sparrows, but stand out mainly because of their chestnut brown cap. Compared to other sparrows, the chipping sparrow is slender and long-tailed, and has a smaller bill. It looks much like the American tree sparrow, but the two can be differentiated by looking closely at the eye stripe (the tree sparrow’s is reddish, not black). You will also notice the chipping sparrow’s gray rump as it flies.

Chipping sparrows are found in woodland edges, parks and orchards all across North America. They are also common visitors to backyards, especially those with bird feeders. This species is a year-round resident or a short distance migrant throughout most of the country.

Chipping sparrows defend their territories against others of their species in the summer. But when nesting season is over and winter sets in, they join together in flocks of several dozen. As a group, they alternate between hopping through grass in search of seeds, feeding together at a feeder, and taking cover inside shrubs.

Besides seeds of a wide variety of grasses and herbs, chipping sparrows devour insects in the summer. They may also eat small fruits. You can sometimes see them pecking through sand grains or small rocks, which they ingest to help them grind the seeds they eat.
It’s not unusual to run across the nest of a chipping sparrow as you walk through your yard, as the birds often place them in a semi-hidden spot low in a shrub or tree. Nests are flimsy and somewhat see-through in construction, measuring about 4-1/2 inches wide and 2 inches deep. Because of the female’s habit of lining her nest with hair, the chipping sparrow has sometimes been called the “hairbird”.

When nest building, chipping sparrows especially gravitate toward evergreens, but will also seek out tangled vines, maples, crabapples and other deciduous species. Although the male guards the female as she works, he doesn’t help with nest construction. The eggs are pale blue to white, lightly streaked with black or brown.

The long, loud, evenly spaced trill of the chipping sparrow is one of the most frequently heard bird songs in spring. This bird's year-round call, a single chip note, helps it stay in communication with others in its flock, and warn them of danger from predators. Chipping sparrows can often be heard singing as they cling to the outer edges of branches in the highest reaches of trees.

Attracting To Your Yard
Having a variety of shrubs and small trees, particularly evergreen shrubs like arborvitae, encourages chipping sparrows to nest and raise their young in your yard. They will readily visit bird feeders, particularly for their favorite seeds such as black oil sunflower seeds. They also appreciate a mixture of seeds scattered on the ground.

For More Information:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Chipping Sparrow
University of Michigan: Critter Catalog - Chipping Sparrow

Photo Credits:
Thumbnail photo by Kelly Colgan Azar
Chipping Sparrow with nestlings by d a murphy
Chipping Sparrow eating seed by Anne Davis 773

  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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