Chipping sparrows are small, delicate, active sparrows with a distinctive bright chestnut crown, bordered by white above their eyes. They have black eyestripes and a buffy white chin. Their back and wings are streaked black and brown. The bill is black above and creamy pink or yellow below. The legs and feet are deep pink. Males and females look similar. Body length is 127 to 147 mm, weight is 11 to 15.5 g.
Chipping sparrows are found throughout most of North America. Some populations are migratory, traveling as far north as northern Canada to breed. They are found throughout the United States and Mexico and into Central America as well. Populations from the southern United States, throughout Mexico, and as far south as Honduras and Nicaragua may be resident year-round. Populations that migrate to breed in northern North America spend winter in the southern portions of the range, along with year-round residents.
Chipping sparrows are found in a wide variety of open woodland habitats. They are found in open forests or forest edges, especially coniferous forests. They prefer forests with shrubby undergrowth. Chipping sparrows are common in suburban areas, urban parks, orchards, and other human-modified landscapes.
Chipping sparrows form mated pairs during the breeding season, but males and females may also seek other mates. Males attract females with their songs and chase them or perform displays on the ground. Males and females display to each other by collecting nest materials while together. Females beg for food from males as well.
Chipping sparrows breed from mid to late April through July. Pairs begin building nests within a few weeks of arriving on the breeding grounds. Males and females choose a nest site, usually in a conifer tree or shrub from 1 to 3 meters above ground. They are usually built in thick vegetation to provide cover. Females build nests out of grasses, roots, and other fine materials. If the first clutch fails, a second nest will be built and a second clutch attempted. Most chipping sparrows successfully raise 1 set of young. Females lay from 2 to 7, usually 4, pale blue eggs with brown blotches. The incubation period is 7 to 15 days, but usually 10 to 12. Young can fly at 8 to 12 days old and become fully independent several weeks after that. Males and females can breed in their first year after hatching.
Males and females protect young against predators. Newly hatched chipping sparrows are naked and helpless, but grow quickly, becoming fully feathered at 6 days after hatching and able to fly as soon as 8 days after hatching. Females incubate the eggs and keep the nestlings warm and males feed females while they are on the nest. Males are responsible for most feeding of nestlings for the first few days. Males will often give food items to the female in the nest, who then passes them to the young. Once the young can fly, they remain near the nest with their parents for another few weeks, when they become independent.
The oldest recorded chipping sparrow in the wild was 9 years and 9 months old. Like most animals, most die in the first few weeks of life.
Chipping sparrows can hop and run on the ground and fly in short, rapid bursts. They are active during the day, but especially in the morning and early evening, when they spend much of their time foraging. They form flocks with other sparrows in the winter, but are found in pairs in territories they defend during breeding season. Males advertise and defend breeding territories with songs and threat displays. Females defend the immediate area of the nest. Chipping sparrows may migrate or be year-round residents. Chipping sparrows migrate with other sparrow species.
Male breeding territory sizes vary with the habitat, but are from 0.2 to 1 hectare in size. Home range sizes are not known. (Middleton, 1998)
Chipping sparrows get their name from the sharp "chip" call that they make throughout the day as they forage and interact with others. They also have a song, a single noted trill. Songs are produced throughout the day by males during breeding season from a perch. They also make calls that sound like harsh "zee-zee-zee's" when they are disturbed.
Chipping sparrows eat mainly grass seeds and the seeds and fruits of other plants. They also eat insects during the breeding season, including moths and butterflies, beetles, and grasshoppers and crickets. Chipping sparrows search for food on the ground or low in shrubby vegetation. They eat small rocks and bits of sand to help them grind up the seeds they eat. During the breeding season, chipping sparrows forage alone or with their mate. In winter they forage in flocks of 25 to 50 birds that travel together.
Chipping sparrows are preyed on by many kinds of birds, mammals, and snakes. Predators on eggs and hatchlings include black rat snakes, eastern milk snakes, blue racers, common garter snakes, American crows, blue jays, and domestic cats. Adults are taken in flight or when sitting on the nest by Cooper's hawks, prairie falcons, American kestrels, loggerhead shrikes, red squirrels, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and domestic cats. Chipping sparrows use alarm calls and threat displays to deter predators. The brown, streaky feathers of adults and nestlings helps to camouflage them.
Chipping sparrow nests are sometimes parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, although chipping sparrows will try to chase them away from their territories. In winter, chipping sparrows flock with eastern bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, pine warblers, northern cardinals, field sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, canyon towhees, rufous-crowned sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, vesper sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, and chesnut-collared longspurs.
There are no adverse effects of chipping sparrows on humans.
Chipping sparrows are delightful to watch and are common near human habitation because of human modification of habitats. (Middleton, 1998)
Chipping sparrow populations may have increased in North America with human changes to habitats, such as logging and secondary regrowth of forests. They do well in suburban areas. Chipping sparrows are found throughout a wide geographic range and population sizes are large.
Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.
Middleton, A. 1998. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina). The Birds of North America Online, 334: 1-20. Accessed April 20, 2009 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/334.