Bird Lore: Chipping Sparrow

Common over much of North America, the Chipping Sparrow has adapted well to landscapes altered by humans. In the 19th Century it was the common sparrow of cities until introduction from Europe of the House Sparrow. It is an uncommon migrant in Western Washington and even less so in Edmonds. But occasionally it has been seen in yards or at the Edmonds Marsh, usually in spring migration. Look for its plain, unstreaked chest, reddish crown, black stripe through its eye, and black bill.

The Chipping Sparrow’s diet is made up of insects and seeds, feeding mostly on insects in summer. Those include beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, leafhoppers and true bugs. It eats mainly seeds in fall and winter, including those of grasses, weeds, and waste grains. It forages mostly on the ground and usually in flocks except during nesting season. It occasionally makes short flights to catch insects in midair.

It is thought that the original breeding habitat of the Chipping Sparrow included open pine woods, edges of conifer forests, and savannah with scattered conifers. In much of the country it is also common in suburbs, city parks, orchards, and other altered habitats. The nest is usually in a conifer but it can also be in a deciduous tree or on the ground. The female builds the nest, which is a compact open cup made of grass, weeds and rootlets, It is lined with animal hair and fine grass. It has been described as of such flimsy construction that light can be seen through it. Speculation is that it provides little insulation for the eggs and young. And yet it works.

The female incubates her three to four eggs for about two weeks. The male will feed the female during incubation. Then both adults feed the nestlings, which leave the nest eight to 12 days after hatching. This species has two broods per year.

The oldest known Chipping Sparrow was 10 years and 11 months of age when it was recaptured in a banding operation in Ontario in 1998. It had been banded in that province in 1987. A group of Chipping Sparrows is collectively known as a tournament of sparrows.

For conservation purposes, the Chipping Sparrow is a species of low concern. Overall the species declined by about 36% between 1966 and 2015, but it is still common. The global breeding population is estimated at 230 million, with 38% spending part of the year in the U.S., 49% in Mexico, and 56% in Canada.

You can listen to the Chipping Sparrow’s song here: Its song is very similar to that of our much more common Dark-eyed Junco.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

  1. Carol,I just want to let you know how much I appreciate your bird articles. Fascinating and informative.

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