Chipping Sparrow

Spezilla Passerina

chipping sparrow

Chipping sparrow, photographed at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in June 2017.

Go anywhere on the North American continent and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find the chipping sparrow, Spezilla passerina.

Alaska? Check. The Yukon? Check. Canada’s Northwest Territories? Check. The lower 48? Check. The chipping sparrow’s range extends through Mexico and as far south as Nicaragua. It’s mostly a migratory bird, but there are places where it lives year-round, particularly the Southeast and the mountains of Mexico and Central America.

In Florida, it’s mostly a winter visitor, but there are some records of chipping sparrows nesting and living year-round in the Panhandle. It’s common as a migrant in the northern and central parts of the Peninsula but rare in South Florida, though a few do find their way into our neck of the proverbial woods.

It’s a small bird, a mix of black and brown streaks above, grayish white below and marked with a dark red “skull cap” and black lines through each eye. The colors fade some in winter but the pattern is still visible.

They go between five and six inches in length, with a wingspan of about eight inches. The bill is stout, a smaller version of cardinal’s, perfect for cracking seeds. They’re commonly seen on the ground foraging in flocks as large as 50. These flocks, says the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,“sometimes give the impression of brown leaves in a gust of wind along side the road.”

Chipping sparrows have a fondness for grass seed, particularly crabgrass seed, but they will eat other types as well. In summer, insects become a bigger part of their diet, with moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles and leaf hoppers on the list of their favorites. They tend to be most active in early morning and early evening.

Chipping sparrows prefer to nest in pines and other conifers, but they’ll also nest in deciduous trees and even on the ground in a well-concealed place. Nests are made of grasses, bits of roots and other vegetation. They’re well known for using horse hair when available.

April through July is generally nesting season. Clutches are typically three or four eggs, which the female incubates; males might provide mom with meals while she sits. Eggs are laid one per day; incubation begins before the last egg is out, and lasts 11 to 14 days. Both parents feed their offspring. Fledging comes in eight to 12 days, but the young sparrows will remain with their parents for several weeks afterwards. Chipping sparrows typically attempt a second brood, and there are reports of “helpers,” probably offspring from the first brood sticking around and assisting with the second.

Males are generally monogamous for the season, but there is evidence that some might have a second mate.

Favorite habitat: open woods with grassy clearings. But they can also be found on roadsides and parks.

Chipping sparrows are members of Emberizidae, the sparrow family.

Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.