Speaking of Nature: The chipping sparrow
It may be the result of the fact that I am 6 foot, 5 inches tall, but I have always been fascinated by the very smallest of animals. Yet, I should qualify that to say the smallest of vertebrates. Insects are so different from me that I don’t have any real strong feeling for how large they should be, but among the vertebrates, the smallest species are the most mesmerizing. They have brains, hearts, and eyes, but how they manage to work seems almost magical.
So, I always have an interest in finding the smallest of something. The smallest weasel in our area is the least weasel, the smallest squirrel in our area is the flying squirrel, and the smallest bird we are likely to see is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Yet there is still room for “smallest” record holders and we are lucky enough to have one of these species right in our backyards.
The smallest sparrow in North America is a species called the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina). A full-grown male (the master of all he surveys) may measure only 5 inches. A really big male — the hulking brute that will dominate all others — might actually measure in at a whopping 51∕2 inches! You may want to put down that cup of coffee if you start trembling in fear!
Despite the terror one might expect to feel in the presence of such awesome power, chipping sparrows are among the most adorable and endearing creatures that live in this world. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them, however, is the fact that you can find chipping sparrows almost anywhere you look. It is only their diminutive size that prevents us from noticing them.
They have been among us for about a month now and, after reviewing the records in my personal archives, I came upon something amazing. This year, the first chipping sparrows appeared in my yard on April 18. Last year, the first appearance was on April 17. I doubt the weather would be a sufficient cue to the birds to start their migrations with such precision, so I would bet that photoperiod (length of daylight) is probably triggering migration. Or, it might just be dumb luck. Other birds have been arriving at wildly different times from last year. So scratch that. Forget I said anything. A really big male is over 5 inches! Oooh! Ahhh!
The lives of chipping sparrows are rather predictable when you consider the fact that they are migratory birds. From their wintering grounds in Mexico and the extreme southern United States, they head north in the spring. They arrive here in the Northeast sometime in mid April and stay until sometime in October. Like most migratory species, they eat insects during the breeding season, but they round out their diet with a few spiders and even some grass seeds. Bird feeders are an attractive source of food for chipping sparrows.
But I think the most appealing aspect of chipping sparrows is their social life. Chipping sparrows are rarely alone. Wherever you find one there is usually another, but I have never seen them in large groups. They travel in pairs and the largest number I have ever seen in one place was four (two pairs fighting at a territory boundary.) When not in the middle of some brouhaha over a territorial infringement, chipping sparrows stay close to one another, keeping in touch with soft chips known in ornithological circles as “contact calls.”
Once territories have been settled, the pair will return to its main objective — breeding. Birds require a nest and chipping sparrows will place theirs between 6 and 12 feet off the ground. These birds are particularly fond of conifers (spruces in particular) and they will position their small nests in the forked branch of a tree. The nests are constructed of grasses and rootlets and are often lined with animal hair. Female chipping sparrows lay two to five eggs, but a typical clutch contains four.
The female is the only member of a mated pair to incubate the eggs, but the male definitely has an active role in parenting. He defends the pair’s territory to ensure there is plenty of food when the chicks hatch and he is then the doting father once they emerge. He will bring tiny insects to each baby in turn. Males have even been known to feed their mates while they incubate eggs and young.
Once the babies are old enough to fly (typically a mere 10 days after hatching), the entire family will forage together. At first the babies will sit and beg for food. As they get stronger, they will start to follow their parents quite closely, observing and learning. Eventually, impatience will drive the fledglings to pick up their own food.
At this point, the fledglings become juveniles, but they do not part company with their parents as many other species would. Instead, the family travels together as a group until the winter migration. Juveniles can be identified by the conspicuous absence of the cinnamon-colored crown feathers and a black patch just below the beak (a.k.a., the “chin”).
As small as they are, male chipping sparrows may occasionally have delusions of grandeur and may strike up relationships with additional females. In the world of biology this is known as polygyny (one male with more than one mate) and this may result in a few late nests here and there. Otherwise, a successful pair may decide to try another nest and produce two broods per year.
At this point in the year, the females are probably sitting tight on their nests and with frost in the forecast (is that really something we need in May?), they will be focused on keeping their eggs warm. In the mornings, I can hear a male singing his high-pitched trilling song from the spruce trees in my front yard. I also have a chipping sparrow visiting my porch and looking for seed spilled by the larger birds. He is there every afternoon and is quite approachable, but you have to look for him.
In your own yard just keep your eyes peeled for some incredibly tiny sparrows in your lawn and garden. They may even look for grit in driveways, so keep an eye open there as well. If you are in a quiet location, you may be able to hear the birds quietly calling out to one another and the rather excited exchange of chips and chatters when the members of a pair reunite.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit