Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Chipping Sparrows are easier to see than many sparrows because they are relatively tame and often feed on the ground. They are fairly common in Tennessee in the summer and rarely spend the winter in the state.

Chipping Sparrows are among our earliest spring migrants when their mechanical trill-song can be heard from trees or shrubs in wooded suburbs or along rural roadsides. The contact call is a sharp chip-note and may be the origin of their common name.

This sparrow breeds from very eastern Alaska through Canada, southward to the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America; they are absent from the southern Great Plains and Florida. The winter range extends across the southern tier of the United States south to Central America. Chipping Sparrows are found throughout Tennessee from early March to mid-October, with a few birds spending the winter.

Description: The Chipping Sparrow is one of the smallest sparrows. It is easily identified during the breeding season by the reddish-brown cap, white line over the eye, black line through the eye, and pale gray unstreaked chest.

In the non-breeding season (August-March), the cap is brownish, the stripe over the eye is dusky, the line through the eye is dark, but not obviously black, and the breast remains unstreaked. The juvenile (May-September) has a prominently streaked chest and head. Males and females look the same.

Length: 5.5"
Wingspan: 8.5"
Weight: 0.42 oz

Voice: The song is a low even-pitched mechanical trill lasting about four seconds. The call is a high, thin chip.

Similar Species:

  • American Tree Sparrows, an irregular winter visitor to Tennessee, are larger and have a dark central chest spot, a rusty crown, and a rusty (not black) stripe through the eye. In winter, the Chipping Sparrow crown would be brown and the eye stripes dark in color.
  • Field Sparrows have a plain face, a thin white eye-ring, and a bright pink bill.
  • Dark-eyed Juncos have a very similar song, but their trill tends to be more musical.

Habitat: Found year-round in wooded suburbs, cemeteries, golf courses, orchards, pastures with scattered trees, and rural roadsides.

Diet: Grass and other small seeds, small fruits, and insects.

Nesting and reproduction: Chipping Sparrows may form loose flocks when they return in March, and males begin defending individual territories in early April. They nest at middle to low elevations throughout most of the state, and peak egg laying is from late April to early May. Chipping Sparrows frequently raise two broods.

Clutch Size: Usually 3 to 5 eggs, with 4 eggs most common.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 11 to 12 days.

Fledging: Both adults feed the nestlings, which fledge in about 9 days.

Nest: It takes the female 3 to 4 days to build the loosely woven cup-nest constructed from rootlets and dried grasses, and lined with animal hair or fine plant fibers. It is placed in a dense shrub, vine tangle, or on a low horizontal branch. Nest heights in Tennessee range from 1.5 to 40 feet, with an average of 7 feet above the ground.

Status in Tennessee: The Chipping Sparrow is a fairly common summer and a rare winter resident throughout Tennessee. It generally arrives in March or early April and departs by late October. The population appears to be stable or slightly increasing.

Fun Facts:

  • Most species of birds molt all of their feathers after the nesting season, and some or all of their feathers again before the beginning of the next nesting season. Curiously, Chipping Sparrows may molt the feathers of their face and throat up to six times in one year. The rest of the body feathers are only replaced once or twice like other species.
  • The oldest known Chipping Sparrow in the wild was 11 years, 10 months old.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Yards, feeders, and open grassy areas with woody shrubs and/or forest edges statewide.