While this winter’s White-Throated Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos will soon be leaving us to migrate up to Canada where they breed, Chipping Sparrows are now returning to Maryland and other parts of the US and Canada from their winter spent in the south.
The first Chipping Sparrow of the spring showed up in our yard this week. These tiny little guys are definitely welcomed back!
Identifying Chipping Sparrows
Chipping Sparrows are the cutest member of the sparrow family that I’ve seen. They are tiny compared to most other sparrows, with crisp neat feathers that never seem out of place. In breeding plumage, they have a pale-grey/frosty-white head and chest, a rufous cap and a black stripe through their eyes, brown wings with black streaks, and a long forked tail. (In the winter their coloring isn’t as bright and contrasty.)
Chipping Sparrows look quite a bit like American Tree Sparrows, especially in the winter when chippies are a bit duller and browner. The color of the line through the eye differs though (black for the Chipping Sparrow and reddish brown for the American Tree Sparrow.) The American Tree Sparrow is just a tad bigger as well.
Petite is the word I’d use for these birds. If you see them by themselves or just look at pictures in a bird guide, you might not realize just how tiny they are. It is when you see them hopping around next to other sparrows that their tiny size is so very apparent.
Relative Sizes of Sparrows
Check out this Chipping Sparrow next to a a Dark-Eyed Junco (above.)
And here he is again next to a Fox Sparrow who is even bigger (above.)
This got me curious about the relative sizes of sparrows, so I used the iBird app to look up the typical length of some of the sparrows we tend to see in our area:
- Chipping Sparrow: 5.5 in
- Field Sparrow: 5.75 in
- Savannah Sparrow: 5.25 – 6.25 in
- Dark-Eyed Junco: 5.75 – 6.5 in
- Song Sparrow: 5.75 – 7.5 in
- American Tree Sparrow: 6.25 in
- White-Throated Sparrow: 6.25 – 7.5 in
- Fox Sparrow: 6.75 – 7.5 in
- Eastern Towhee: 7 – 7.5 in
More Chipping Sparrow Tidbits
Chipping Sparrows eat insects and seeds. (In my yard, they like white proso millet on the ground and sunflower hearts from the Squirrel Buster Plus feeders.) I see them most often on the ground with other sparrows. They can also snag insects in flight too, like a flycatcher.
Where to Find Chipping Sparrows
Chipping Sparrows like areas with a mix of open trees and grass. So you can find them on forest edges as well as in our yards and parks. For nesting, they prefer shrubby plants like conifers.
Liking hair to line their nests, you might see one plucking hair out of another animal (maybe your snoozing family dog.)
Chipping Sparrows & Cowbirds
Chipping Sparrows can have problems with the much larger Brown-Headed Cowbird’s parasitic habit of laying eggs in their nests. The cowbird usually removes one of the sparrow’s eggs first, apparently in hopes of fooling the mother. Sometimes the mother sparrow abandons the nest and any previous eggs. Other times she continues with the nest. When the cowbird hatches, the larger fosterling will compete with the bird’s own nestlings for food.
Chipping Sparrow Song
The male’s song is a rapid trill of repeating notes sung from a height. It is is sometimes described as mechanical and sounding like a sewing machine. (Listen to Chipping Sparrow Song.)
Have you seen a Chipping Sparrow in your yard lately? Keep an eye out for these cute little birds!
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