Chipping Sparrows Arrive

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

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!

Chipping Sparrow Eating Seed
Chipping Sparrow Eating Seed

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 their 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.)

Petite is the word I’d use for them. 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 on the ground next to other sparrows that their tiny size is so very apparent.

A Chipping Sparrow and Two Dark-Eyed Juncos
A Chipping Sparrow and Two Dark-Eyed Juncos

Check out this Chipping Sparrow next to a a Dark-Eyed Junco (above.)

A Fox Sparrow and a Chipping Sparrow
A Fox Sparrow and a Chipping Sparrow

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 looking for food with the other sparrows. They can snag insects in flight too though, like a flycatcher.

Chipping Sparrow Eating Sunflower Hearts
Chipping Sparrow Eating Sunflower Hearts

Chipping Sparrows like areas with a mix of open trees and grass, so you can find them on forest edges as well as in suburban yards and parks. They prefer shrubby plants like conifers for nesting.

They like to use hair to line their nests and so can sometimes be seen plucking hair out of other animals (like your snoozing family dog.)

Female Brown-Headed Cowbird
Female Brown-Headed Cowbird

Chipping Sparrows can have problems with the much larger Brown-Headed Cowbird’s parasitic habit of laying eggs in their nests, who usually remove one of the sparrow’s eggs first, apparently in hopes of fooling the mother. Sometimes the mother sparrow will abandon the nest and any previous eggs laid. Other times she will continue with the nest and when the cowbird hatches, the larger fosterling will compete with the bird’s own nestlings for food.

The male’s song is a rapid trill of repeating notes sung from a height that is sometimes described as mechanical and sounding like a sewing machine. (Listen to Chipping Sparrow Song.)

Chipping Sparrows look quite a bit like American Tree Sparrows, especially in the winter when chippies are a bit duller and browner, although the color of the line through the eye differs (black for the Chipping Sparrow and reddish brown for the American Tree Sparrow.) The American Tree Sparrow is just a tad bigger as well.

Chipping Sparrow Eating Millet
Chipping Sparrow Eating Millet

Have you seen a Chipping Sparrow in your yard lately? Keep an eye out for these cute little birds!


Sources & Places to Learn More About Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrow Section on All About Birds

Chipping Sparrow Page on Audubon

Chipping Sparrow vs Tree Sparrow on Feederwatch Site

iBird App

Peter Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion (Amazon)

Into the Nest; Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds by Laura Erickson and Marie Read (Amazon)


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