Speaking of Nature: The charm of the chipping sparrow

  • Easily identified by its clear gray breast and cinnamon cap with black eye stripe, the chipping sparrow is so small that it may go unnoticed altogether. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 5/22/2022 4:02:07 PM
Modified: 5/22/2022 4:00:12 PM

Like all of you, I find that the inbox on my email account is filled with all sorts of stuff. Some of it is interesting and some of it is the flotsam and jetsam of the electronic world; unsolicited garbage that mucks up the works. So, I have to sift through these things to see if there is something worthwhile. When I did this last week I discovered a simple little message from my editor.

She contacted my in the hopes that I might be able to identify a bird for her. This is a common theme of many of the emails that I receive from readers, but rarely is it an editor or colleague from the paper. So I opened up the email and found two pictures of a bird that I recognized immediately. A familiar “friend” from my deck, this was a chipping sparrow (Spizellapasserina). Since my very own editor was curious about this bird, it occurred to me that others might also be unfamiliar with this tiny migrant. So, this one is for you, Chris.

Measuring in at a diminutive 5 ½ inches, the chipping sparrow is one of the smallest birds that you will encounter at your back yard feeder. The American goldfinch is slightly smaller, at 5 inches in length, and the smallest is the ruby-throated hummingbird, which measures in at only 3 ¾ inches. As a result of this tiny size, the chipping sparrow may unobtrusively move in and out of your field of view, but once you notice it and lock onto the bird with your full attention, you will find yourself charmed.

Now, before I go any further I think it is important to address the way scientists are trained. Early in the process it is impressed upon us that we are not supposed to feel for the subjects of our study, nor are we supposed to anthropomorphize them. We must keep an emotional distance and “respect” them as the wild creatures that they are. While I understand this approach, and appreciate its necessity for certain kinds of work, I generally reject it. Instead, I find it much more engaging to identify with the animal in question, especially birds.

So, when I tell you that you will be charmed by a chipping sparrow I truly think that you will find yourself quite capable of identifying with the bird on a personal level. Let me give you an example. On my deck there are many birds that come and go. Some are large, like grackles and blue jays, while others are smaller, like the chickadees and titmice. Most make a great deal of noise and are somewhat flashy as they come and go. But all of these things are quite different with chipping sparrows.

Extremely quiet, the chipping sparrow is quite willing to approach a human when other bird species will not. So, if you sit in the same place day after day you may find that a chipping sparrow will come within 10 feet of you as it searches for any delectable morsels that you may have put out. And if this happens you will soon notice that there is rarely just one chipping sparrow. They usually appear in pairs.

The males and females of mated pairs appear to be inseparable. At least at this early point in the season, the males and females are always close to one another and in this way they remind me of my beautiful wife, Susan and myself. Always together and always concerned for the other, these tiny birds move about the landscape as one. Scientists may try to explain this away as the obvious result of mate-guarding and territory defense, but isn’t that what people are doing as well? Beyond that, I think they just really like each other.

Chipping sparrows arrive in April and whenever they appear you can be sure that the juncos will soon disappear. They come from their wintering grounds in and around the Gulf of Mexico and they will travel as far north as southern Quebec and most of Ontario here in the east. The birds are looking for grassy forests and forest edges where evergreen trees can be found. As a result, they are quite partial to yards and parks where humans maintain grassy areas interspersed with trees.

My yard just happens to have a mixture of short grass maintained by mowing, longer grasses that I intentionally leave unmowed and spruce trees that have been planted as a natural snow fence. This appears ideal habitat for chipping sparrows and I have them in my yard every year. The females will build typical cup nests out at the tips of evergreen branches between 3 and 10 feet off the ground and while I am certain that this is happening (because I see baby chipping sparrows later in the year) I find their nests to be diabolically difficult to locate.

If you want to make “friends” with these birds, then you have to spend some time with them. Put up a feeder and sit near it while you read a book. Let the birds get used to the idea that you are not a threat and eventually they will begin to ignore you. Just make sure to look up from your reading from time to time so you can see who is around. Chipping sparrows are so small that they can come and go virtually unnoticed, but if you find that one of these tiny birds has come close to you may find it impossible to turn away and resume your reading.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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