The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Chipping Sparrows are one of our
Smallest Winter Visitors
Ro Wauer, November 30, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

This little winter sparrow has already become a fixture in my yard, consuming an unbelievable amount of seeds for such a tiny bird. On returning home from a week in Utah, visiting my 82-year old mother, it was the very first bird found at my feeders; it had not yet appeared before my trip. Its appearance is one more reliable sign that winter is really with us.

Chipping sparrows are tiny birds, especially in comparison with most of the other feeder birds, such as cardinals, Inca doves, house sparrow, and such. Yet, at least adults, are one of our most distinct species, readily identified by their small size, red cap, gray collar, and black line that runs from the top of the bill back to the nape. Young birds can be confusing, however, as they are very nondescript with fine streaks on their breast and somewhat heavier streaks on their back. But youngsters and the adults usually occur in small to large flocks, and usually feed together at feeders. They prefer to feed on the ground, but will also take advantage of whatever small seeds are available at feeders at any height.

Although chippers do not nest in South Texas, they do nest in the Texas Pineywoods and a portion of the Hill Country, as well as in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. On the breeding grounds they are very vocal, singing a trilling songs throughout the daytime. On their wintering grounds, including South Texas, they rarely sing early on, but by early spring they begin to utter partial songs. And just before they depart they can often be heard singing almost full songs. Many of the partial songs apparently are practicing juveniles.

Chipping sparrows are most closely related to Brewer's, clay-colored, and field sparrows, also little birds that occasionally spend their winters in South Texas. Field sparrows, in particular, can be expected in weedy areas most winters. It looks very different with a pinkish bill, gray collar, and white eye ring; it does not possess the black line that runs from the bill to the nape of the chipping sparrow. Field sparrows also nest in Texas, including most of the Hill Country, where their sing very distinct descending trills that sound like someone holding a paddle over a ping pong ball.

Chipping sparrows will be with us throughout the winter months, but begin to move northward by March. Some remain until mid-May; probably those individuals that can depend upon a steady food supply at feeders. While they are with us, they can be fun to watch, as they are one of the most aggressive of all of sparrows. Maybe because they are so small, like hummingbirds, they seem to spend an amazing amount of time bickering with neighbors. They will even charge another chipping sparrows if it gets in the way or agitates it for some reason. They are real characters and worth watching.

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