A close look at this natty little bird reveals much to admire in its quiet and confiding ways. A rusty beret and bold, white eyeline are the best field marks of this slender little sparrow. Plain gray underparts, a streaked brown back, and a small, all-black bill set off its striking head markings. It is an under-appreciated bird, perhaps because it is so small and unobtrusive.
Rather dry, monotonous trills, as well as its signature chipping notes, are the ambient sounds of a chipping sparrow’s territory.
Before the massive expansion of suburbs, the chipping sparrow was limited to open, grassy coniferous forests and park-like woodlands with shrubby understories. Our suburban habitats have just the right mix of short grass, shrubbery, and conifers that chipping sparrows need, so we enjoy their company on doorsteps and sidewalks. Although northern populations are strongly migratory, southern birds flock up but tend to stay near their breeding grounds.
Chipping sparrows forage primarily on or near the ground, feasting on weed and grass seeds and some smaller fruits. They feed insects to the young, however, sometimes flycatching on the wing. Winter flocks of up to 50 birds perch in trees, descending en masse to the ground to peck for seeds, then adjourning to treetops before the next feeding bout. At feeding stations, they’ll peck on the ground or perch on hopper feeders.
As common as it is around dooryards and gardens, we know surprisingly little about the chipping sparrow’s mating systems. One Ontario study showed males not to be monogamous, as assumed, but to mate freely.
Female chipping sparrows weave lovely little nests of thin twigs and weed stems, with a center composed of animal hair. These are often concealed in low trees and shrubs, but are easily located by the shrilling of older nestlings. Females incubate the four eggs for around 12 days, and the young leave the nest about 9 to 12 days later. Streaky, brown, and nondescript, they’re fed by their parents for three more weeks before forming juvenile flocks.
Chipping Sparrows love to line their nests with hair. Place some hair from your next haircut on your lawn in spring, and in the fall you may find a nest with familiar-looking hair in it.