Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina


This tame little sparrow with a rusty cap is the most domestic of all North American sparrows and is a common bird across most of the continent.  It derives its name from its chipping call notes and dry chipping trill.  At the turn of the 20th century this bird was commonly referred to as the “hairbird” from its practice of lining its nest with horse hair. It now uses the hair of numerous animals in nests which are often found in gardens, hedges and yard shrubs.  Breeding takes place in most of North America excluding the far north and southeast United States.  The winter range extends from the central southwest states, parts of Florida and Mexico. 


General: Small, slim sparrow with long notched tail and rusty cap. Length: 12 to 14cm, wing: 62 to 77 mm, weight: 10.5 to 14.6 g. 

Adult Male: Bright chestnut crown, distinct white eyebrow (superciliary stripe), and black line extending from bill through eye to ear; note also the gray nape and cheek; the back is brown with dark brown streaking; gray unstreaked rump; and two white wing bars.  The tail is fairly long and notched.

Adult Female: Sexes are similar. 

Juvenile: Underpants are prominently streaked; crown usually lacks rufous; rump may show slight streaking.

Similar Species: American Tree Sparrows have a rusty cap but are noticeably larger, and the head is not so strikingly marked.  Clay-coloured and Brewer’s sparrows are similar in size and shape, but lack the rusty cap, white superciliary and black eyeline stripes. 

Behavior: In spring and summer, males sing persistently from a tree.  They feed both in trees and on the ground; in migration, they are often found in rather large, loose flocks, feeding in mowed grass.  Their flight is fairly strong, fast, and direct. 

Habitat: These sparrows are characteristically found in fairly dry, open woodlands or woodland edge with grassy understory, parks and other urban settings, and orchards; they occur in coniferous, mixed, or deciduous woods. 


Three subspecies of Chipping Sparrow north of Mexico are generally recognized: S.p.passerina, S.p.arizonae, and S.p.boreophila.  Chipping Sparrows have a ‘dawn song,’ given from the ground, which consists of a series of short trills, lasting less that 1 second each.  The nest is placed in a bush or tree, commonly a conifer, often in an open grassy area, from 1 to 19 m high, and rarely on the ground.  It is a neatly woven cup.  Usually three to five eggs, light blue, sparsely spotted with brown, blackish, or sometimes lavender, or rarely without spotting. 


Still common, the species is not as common as it was in colonial times.  Not a bird of deep woodlands, this sparrow doubtless benefited from the clearing of the eastern deciduous forests.  There is possible decline where forest is regenerating.
Capture Rates

Although Chipping Sparrow has a wide breeding range, it gravitates towards evergreens in places where this habitat is available as is the case at Colony Farm. They are therefore not extremely common right at the banding station. Shortly after breeding, Chipping Sparrow disperse to areas with better resources to molt as suggested by the peak capture rate (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) in August. They are short distance migrants, moving south for the winter also seen by our zero capture rate between September - March.


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