The chipping sparrow is a bird you may have seen. It is a small bird, to be sure, but it lives in close proximity to us humans. Nor is it particularly secretive. While it is plain, it is distinctive as well. In some ways, it makes itself conspicuous.
The chipping sparrow is therefore a good starting point to learn the sparrows.
The sparrows are a large and intimidating group of birds. Birders refer to them, somewhat derisively, but perhaps also affectionately, as “little brown jobs.” The phrase is often abbreviated LBJ, as in Lyndon Baines Johnson.
You might hear birders declare, “There’s an LBJ.” You can be quite sure they weren’t referring to the former president.
An intimidating total of two dozen sparrow species occur in our area, and sorting them out in order to identify them and pin a name on them can seem daunting.
The chipping sparrow is available to help.
First, the chipping sparrow displays a clear, unmarked breast. This is an important tool in separating the sparrows, which fall neatly into streaked and clear-breasted, with a couple of spotted breasts added to the mix.
Second, the chipping sparrow has a stripe on the top of its head, the crown. This is brick red.
Together, these two field marks—the clear breast and the reddish-crown stripe—clinch your identification of the chipping sparrow.
It’s that simple—but caution nevertheless. The tree sparrow is very like the chipping but with a spot in the center of the breast. This spot distinguishes the tree sparrow from the chipping sparrow. The species otherwise are almost identical twins.
One other identification trick comes into play here. The chipping sparrow is a summer resident. The tree sparrow is an early spring migrant.
The chipping sparrow is distinguished in one other way: by its call. This is a kind of staccato series of chipping noises. Of course, this is the origin of its common name.
These field marks will lead to a definitive identification of the chipping sparrow.
Alas, however, the chipping sparrow is not always cooperative enough to allow a close inspection, and many chipping sparrow sightings must be logged as “sparrow species” or “little brown job.”
Ah! But hope remains, and that is the habitat in which chipping sparrows occur.
The chipper’s habitat preference often brings it into contact with humans. Chipping sparrows favor fairly dense cover, often low growing. They like evergreens especially, though not exclusively.
This is the kind of habitat that occurs throughout Grand Forks.
Where, you wonder?
Against the foundation of your house, your workplace, your classroom building. These so-called “foundation plantings” provide excellent nesting sites for chipping sparrows.
Of course, this means chipping sparrows are right there to be seen, identified and enjoyed.
That is just what I have been doing.
A chipping sparrow has built a nest in one of the Ponderosa pine trees I planted when we moved to our place west of Gilby, N.D. The work was probably done by the female. The female also tends the nest. Male chipping sparrows have two functions: mating and procuring food for the resulting family.
So the bird I flushed from the pine tree was almost certainly a female. She sat closely on the nest, flushing only when I approached closely. I didn’t see the nest. I saw the bird flee.
The nest is about 6 feet above the ground, just at eye level for me. That’s rather lofty for a chipping sparrow nest. It’s cleverly hidden among the pine needles. Perhaps at least as important, it is located precisely where two limbs diverge, and it is securely fastened to both. This should make it secure against wind gusts.
I have no way of knowing whether this is the chipping sparrow’s first nesting attempt this season. It may be that earlier efforts were destroyed in the weather events of late June and early July.
Mid-July is within the usual nesting period for chipping sparrows, though. Broods have been successful well into August.
Despite its close association with humankind, the chipping sparrow is not an especially well-known or well-regarded bird. That is unfortunate, since it is a handsome creature, relatively common and fairly easily spotted (though perhaps not so easily identified).
The challenge is not so great, however, and having once recognized the chipping sparrow, a window opens into the world of sparrows, since this one species becomes a kind of template against which all others may be compared—and identified.