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Jacobs: Chipping sparrows invade the garden

Chipping sparrows are common, but I had no idea there were so many in my yard.

Chipping sparrow July 17.jpg
Illustration by Mike Jacobs.
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The idea was simple: Finding myself without a candidate for bird of the week, I figured I’d step outside and then write about the first species I saw. I admit that I cheated by going out the garage door. I knew that barn swallows had a nest there. But the swallows were gone. The young had fledged and left the nest. The yellow-bellied sapsucker was working the elm tree, but I’d written about that species earlier this year.

I went back inside, then out the back door, where goldfinches were swarming a tray of sunflower seeds, as they do every day. The goldfinch was last week’s bird. The house wren that I heard didn’t qualify, because the rule I’d made required me to see the species.

I gave up, ate supper, and headed to the garden, turned on the water and sat back in my garden chair. Nothing attracts birds like water on a hot day, and I was richly rewarded.

Orchard orioles arrived in several plumages, breeding male, female, first year male, all of them beautiful birds – dazzling really in the mist. Robins showed up, too. Both species have been used as bird of the week recently.

Then came the chipping sparrows, at least a dozen of them. I was stunned. Chipping sparrows are common, but I had no idea there were so many in my yard.


A backyard is good habitat for chipping sparrows. They are an “edge species,” often found at forest margins, along riverbanks, at field borders, in brushy areas and backyards, sometimes in foundation plantings by office buildings, including the Herald building downtown.

The chipping sparrow is a small, trim bird easily recognized by the blaze of red or orange on the crown of its head and a black strip behind the eye. The breast is tinged with gray and the back with black, white and ochre. No other sparrow nesting in our area displays a red crown. The American tree sparrow, an early spring and late fall migrant, is similar to the chipping sparrow, but it has a dot at the center of its breast. The chipping sparrow is clear-breasted.

This sparrow's name is descriptive. Chipping sparrows do, indeed, chip. These vocalizations are used in many combinations, as contact calls, alarm calls, fighting calls, soliciting calls and songs.

Although the chipping sparrow is common, its habits aren’t well studied. I learned this reading about the species in the monograph in “Birds of North America” published by the American Ornithologists’ Union, now known as the American Ornithological Society.

Here’s a telling quote from the monograph: “Even though common and abundant, the chipping sparrow is surprisingly understudied. For example, until recently, it was widely accepted that the chipping sparrow was a typically territorial and monogamous species, but evidence from Ontario now challenges this assumption. Observations of color-banded birds show that once nesting has begun, males move through neighboring territories, where they may copulate with several different females.”

So, maybe that’s what was going on in my garden!

Late summer is a dangerous time for birds. Most species are beginning a pre-migration molt that may leave them flightless and vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, cats and snakes among them.

Other birds present dangers, as well. Grackles are notorious nest robbers. So are house wrens. Cooper’s hawks eat other birds. Peregrine falcons are avian predators, as well.


All of these are lesser threats than loss of habitat, which is exacerbated by global warming and extreme weather events, including the current drought and the freakish winter storm in Texas, that came at the time that many of our nesting birds were en route north.

As a consequence, I have two birding mottos to share: “Watch them while you can.” And “Enjoy what you see.”

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs In Season mug.jpg
Mike Jacobs

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