Chipping sparrow, a summer favorite, leaving soon

Chipping sparrow, a summer favorite, leaving soon

The trilling song of the chipping sparrow is a common part of the summer chorus of birds, heard throughout much of the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico and Northern Central America.

However, by mid-July the first southward movement begins for birds in the Interior West. In our area these small sparrows depart in August and September. Many of them spend the winter in the southern parts of our country, especially Southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, although they are not common in Southern Florida.

Here in the North, finding a chipping sparrow during the winter is possible but unusual. A few show up on Christmas Bird Counts, usually frequenting feeders along with more common winter residents.

In the spring males arrive on the nesting grounds a week or more ahead of females. Females do most of the nest building. Nests may be on the ground or in small trees, often pines. Most chipping sparrows are monogamous and usually raise two broods in a summer. They are often parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds.

Considered quite tame, chipping sparrows are often seen on the ground, in and around houses and bird feeders. If you see a small sparrow on the ground, it often will be a chipping.

The summer adult plumage is distinctive, with a rufous cap, white superciliary stripe, black line through the eye and a gray rump. The tail is long and notched. Young birds look different, with fine streaks and no bright rufous crown. Adults also are paler in the winter and can be confused with other winter sparrows.

In Southern Arizona there are often good-sized flocks of chipping sparrows during the winter. We almost always encounter them among the pines in Madera Canyon, south of Tucson.

Closely related species in the genus Spizella include clay-colored and Brewer’s sparrows. Brewer’s is a nesting bird of the Interior West and winters in large numbers in Southern Arizona and Mexico. Clay-colored sparrows spend winters mainly in Mexico, but they nest mainly in Canada.

I like the way William Dawson described the chipping sparrow in 1903 in his “Birds of Ohio.”

“The chipping sparrow hops fearlessly about our yards in search of food or flutters up with a load of nesting material, not with the brazen impudence of the house sparrow, but with the quiet confidence of a trusted friend,” he wrote.

Of the song, Dawson said, “The monotonous trill scarcely rates above the rattle of castanets, but the little singer pours out his soul, and his ardor leads him to sustained effort throughout the sultry hours when more brilliant vocalists are sulking in the shade.”

So enjoy the chippies while you can, for their summer stay will soon come to an end for another year.

Bruce Glick can be emailed at