Scientific Name: Spizella passerina
Common Name: Chipping Sparrow
(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Carol McKenzie and Ms. Rachel Gruver for their 2009 and 2011 Biology 220W courses at Penn State New Kensington)
The chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) is one of the most common birds in North America. It is small (five and one half inches long) and slender and distinctively marked with a red-brown cap during the breeding season. It also has a dark eye line, a white eyebrow, brown striped back and wings, and, in mature individuals, a smooth, grayish breast and belly. Females and males are similarly marked, although females are slightly larger and slightly duller in their coloration.
(Image: Dave Menke, retrieved from US Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library)
Range and Habitat
The chipping sparrow is found throughout North America (Canada, United States, Mexico). In the northern sections of its range it is migratory (northern, summer breeding territories and southern, wintering territories), while in the southern sections of its range it is a year-round resident.
This species is very adaptable to a wide range of habitats and is very tolerant of human activities. Nests can be found in northern pine forests, southern deciduous forests, park-like, open woodlands, shrub thickets, suburban yards, meadow edges, orchards, and even Christmas tree plantations. Nests are typically located two to eight feet off of the ground in trees or shrubs that average eight feet in height. The nest is small (60 to 100 mm in diameter) and fairly fragile. It is made up of loosely woven grasses, plant stalks, and small roots and typically is wedged into surrounding leaves and branches for support. The chipping sparrow is also known to line their nests with horse or dog hair. This behavior generated the old name for the species, the “hair bird.”
Chipping sparrows are also very adaptable to available foods. They eat a wide range of grass and weed seeds, seasonally available fruits, spiders, insects, and a variety of other invertebrates. They are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders and most typically, at my feeders at least, glean fallen seeds from the ground beneath the feeders rather than directly from the feeder perches.
Only the male chipping sparrows make the species distinctive, buzzing song. They have several variations of this song that are used to claim mating territory, to maintain those territories, and to attract mates. Immature males may produce a range of songs at first but then, typically, settle into one chosen variation. Males may, though, upon contact with a new neighboring male, pick up and begin to imitate the new bird’s song.
Mating and Reproduction
Males either return to or reclaim breeding territories in mid-May and then begin to interact with females (who may be arriving on site via migration) one or two weeks later. Courtship is accomplished by a song variation (mentioned above) and then paired flying and food gathering. Copulation occurs either on the ground or in tree branches. The mating pair’s relationship is not thought to be particularly monogamous. There is evidence that both the male and the female seek additional partners. The mated pair selects the nesting site and builds their nest a few days after mating. The female lays two to five eggs in a clutch. Most typically chipping sparrows have a single brood in a season although a second clutch is possible. Eggs are incubated by the female for ten to twelve days. The male feeds the female throughout the incubation. Nestlings will fledge nine to twelve days after hatching. Nestlings are fed by both parents and fledglings may also continue to be fed by the parents for an additional three weeks.
Parasites and Predators
Cowbirds parasitize chipping sparrow nests especially if the nests are located near agricultural areas or in more open habitats. Chipping sparrows, though, frequently abandon nests in which cowbird eggs have been laid. This results in failure of both species’ reproductive efforts. Chipping sparrows are also under considerable predation pressure from crows, blue jays, grackles, snakes, squirrels, and domestic cats. Also, exotic, invasive plants which cause reduced numbers of native plant species on whose array of seeds the chipping sparrow feeds can cause reduced populations of the bird.
Finally, chipping sparrows are under competitive stress with exotic, invasive bird species. English sparrows and house finches both cause reduced chipping sparrow populations especially in urban and suburban environments. Chipping sparrow numbers, though, are still higher today than before European settlement of North America in spite of the fairly recent impacts of exotic plant and animal species.