by Alex Forsythe
Edward Forbush, renowned ornithologist and at age 16 the Curator of Ornithology for the Worcester Natural History Society Museum, wrote in 1929: “The Chipping Sparrow is the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives. It is the most domestic of all the sparrows. It approaches the dwellings of man with quiet confidence and frequently builds its nest and rears its young in the clustering vines of porch or veranda under the noses of the human tenants.”
Chipping Sparrows were once very common and seen often around homes and in towns. John James Audubon wrote, “Few birds are more common throughout the United States than this gentle and harmless little bunting.” They suffered a sharp decline in the early 1900’s due in part, scientists believe, by the brood parasitic Cowbird and from competition by the invasive House Sparrows. Their populations have stabilized since 1966 according to data in the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Their nests are often creative. “Popular Science Monthly” (October 1917) featured a Chipping Sparrow nest built in the shape of a figure 8. The locations can also be interesting. People have reported nests built on the ground (Walkinshaw, 1944), on strands of pepper plants hung out to dry in late summer three years in a row (R. F. Miller, 1911), and at the bottom of a Hairy Woodpecker’s winter roost hole 6″ deep (R. F. Miller, 1923).
I am the only birder in my family so I often hear, “A sparrow is a sparrow. They all look alike. What’s the difference?” The Chipping Sparrow, however, does have unique markings that make it easier to identify than some of its cousins. The rufous cap on its head along with the dark line through its eye make it stand out from the crowd. The Chipping Sparrow’s call is also easy to identify and remember. It is a series of chip notes. Gene Stratton-Porter described the call in “Homing with the Birds”: “The chipping sparrow has a call note which is a sharper, more tensely inflected ‘Chip,’ and a song of scarcely more than a persistently reiterated note which is the least interesting music of the sparrow family.” Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology describes the call as “a long, dry trill of evenly spaced, almost mechanical-sounding chips. It’s one of the most common sounds of open woods in spring.”
If you see a sparrow sporting a reddish hat, with a bold taste in eyeliner, and a fondness for saying its name over and over again, you’ve got a Chipping Sparrow!