Original description: Fringilla passerina Bechstein 1798
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): Chipping Sparrow, Spizella socialis; Western Chipping Sparrow, Spizella socialis arizonae
AOU 2 (1895): Chipping Sparrow, Spizella socialis; Western Chipping Sparrow, Spizella socialis arizonae
AOU 3 (1910): Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina passerina; Western Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina arizonae
AOU 4 (1931): Eastern Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina passerina; Western Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina arizonae
AOU 5 (1957): Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina passerina, Spizella passerina arizonae, Spizella passerina boreophila
AOU 6 (1983): Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina
AOU 7 (1998): Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
Behavior: Two centuries ago, Chipping Sparrows were common inhabitants of United States cities,
“building in the branches of the trees with which our streets and gardens are ornamented; and gleaning up crumbs from our yards, and even our doors, to feed… one of these birds attend[ed] regularly every day, during a whole summer, while the family were at dinner, under a piazza, fronting the garden, and pick up the crumbs that were thrown to him.”
In the midwest, one mid-nineteenth-century observer found them
“very common and familiar in the streets of St. Louis, especially so in the business part of that city, along the wharves and near the grain-stores, seeking their food with a confidence and fearlessness….”
The streets of most American cities are too busy and too treeless for Chipping Sparrows today, and the arrival of the House Sparrow has rendered the native bird less domestic than it once was. But on their suburban breeding grounds, Chipping Sparrows are still trusting and tame, nesting in low ornamental conifers and feeding happily at the feet of birders and non-birders on lawns and ball fields.
Winter flocks are more alert, tolerating less human disturbance and flying more readily from the ground to the shelter of trees. Flocks typically flush in small groups, flying in strong but swooping flight into the outer branches and twigs, where the birds space themselves evenly to peer at intruders, not clumping or hiding behind foliage.
Males occasionally sing from the ground, but most singing is done from just inside the edge of low trees and bushes, typically pines and other conifers. Singing birds depress the tail and raise the head, opening the bill and sometimes turning the neck.
Voice: The usual call note of the Chipping Sparrow is a short and clear tseep, with a relaxed attack and a wispy decay; it is given both by perched birds and in flight, rapidly repeated when birds are startled or in the course of squabbles between feeding individuals. There is also “a unique zeeeeeee alarm” call given in the “presence of hawks.”
The Chipping Sparrow’s simple trilling song is uniform in structure across populations, but each individual’s version comprises a different type of syllable, repeated at a different rate. At their extremes, these songs can be distinguished even by human ears, making it possible to track the movements and behavior of individual males in a park or back yard. While most birds sing a fairly dry, slow tremolo of chips, the syllables just too fast to be counted, some utter a higher-pitched, faster buzz, quite similar to the song of a Worm-eating Warbler; others sing more slowly, the individual notes sweet and audibly slurred, closely recalling some Pine Warbler songs. Unlike the songs of the two parulids, the Chipping Sparrow’s trill is not noticeably softer at beginning or end, and there is no discernible variation in the tone or pitch of the repeated syllables, which are only rarely doubled. A behavioral difference can also provide a clue to help distinguish the sparrow from the Pine Warbler: both commonly sing from large pines, but the Chipping Sparrow sings repeatedly from a favored perch, while the warbler is heard now from this side, now from the other side of the tree as it sings and feeds, feeds and sings.
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult Spizella passerina passerina: Tail feathers dusky blackish with gray edges, the outer feathers noticeably longer than the innermost pair, creating notch. Upper tail coverts and rump deep olive-gray to silvery. Back and scapulars brown to chestnut-brown, the feathers with broad blackish shaft streaks aligning to form regular black stripes. Primaries and secondaries dusky gray on inner web, browner on outer web, with narrow paler gray edges. Tertials dark dusky with fairly broad buffy to chestnut-brown edges on outer web. Greater coverts gray, darker gray towards tip, with buffy edges and buffy or whitish tips, the tips forming a neat wing bar. Median coverts gray on inner web, darker gray on outer web, both webs broadly tipped with buffy whitish, forming neat upper wing bar. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape gray with variable brown-black streaking, especially in basic plumage tending to form two broad, rather diffuse stripes outlining central gray patch.
Under tail coverts, vent, belly, flanks, breast, and throat whitish; often buffier whitish in formative and adult basic plumage. Throat whitish, bordered in basic plumage (and occasionally in alternate plumage) by faint dark lateral throat stripe. Ear coverts brownish gray, grayer in alternate plumage. Basic- and formative-plumaged birds with dull whitish jaw stripe; jaw stripe whitish and usually continuous with whitish throat in alternate plumage.
Crown dull rusty brown in basic plumage, with blackish streaks typically concentrated into vague lateral crown stripes and sparser on buffy or grayish median crown stripe; in alternate plumage, crown deep cinnamon to chestnut-red, often (perhaps mostly in females) with scattered dark streaking. Forehead buffy brown with whitish central stripe in basic plumage; in alternate plumage, forehead mostly black, with narrow but distinct short whitish stripe from bill base to crown. Ear coverts bordered above by narrow black eye line, which breaks fine white eye ring behind and in front of eye and continues across lore to base of upper mandible. Broad, clear supercilium begins above bill base and continues to nape; buffy in basic plumage, whitish or gray in alternate plumage.
Fine, rather long tarsus and toes dull pinkish, brighter in summer. Slender bill, slightly swollen at base, pinkish brown, darker above; blackish in summer.
Juvenile Spizella passerina passerina: Tail feathers dusky with gray edges, the outer feathers noticeably longer than the innermost pair, creating notch. Upper tail coverts and rump brownish gray to brown, with scattered blackish streaking. Back and scapulars brown to dull chestnut, the feathers with broad blackish shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries dusky gray on inner web, browner on outer web, with narrow paler gray edges. Tertials dark dusky with fairly broad buffy edges on outer web. Greater coverts gray-brown with buffy edges and tips, the tips forming a broad, diffuse wing bar. Median coverts gray-brown both webs broadly tipped with buffy, forming a broad, diffuse upper wing bar. Marginal coverts of under wing white. Nape brownish or brownish gray with brown-black streaking.
Under tail coverts, vent, belly, flanks, breast, and throat buffy. Breast and sides with neat, distinct dusky streaks. Throat buffy, bordered by faint dark lateral throat stripe. Ear coverts brownish. Jaw stripe buffy.
Crown light buffy brown with broad dusky streaking and occasionally a hint of rust. Broad buffy median crown stripe with dusky flecking and streaking. Forehead buffy brown. Ear coverts bordered above by faint black eye line, which breaks fine white eye ring behind and in front of eye and usually continues across lore to base of upper mandible. Broad buffy supercilium begins above bill base and continues to nape.
Fine, rather long tarsus and toes dull pinkish brown. Slender bill, slightly swollen at base, brownish above with dark tip, paler brownish below.
Length 115-127 mm (4.5-5.0 inches)
Wing 63-71 mm (2.5-2.8 inches)
Tail 51-60 mm (2.0-2.4 inches)
Mass 11-16 g