CHIPPING SPARROWSpizella passerina

The song of the Chipping Sparrow, as its name implies, is a rapid trill, sometimes resembling the sound of a pneumatic tool chipping paint from a metal surface. The plumages of males and females are similar, and in winter males lose their more distinctive head markings (Middleton 1998).

The species is common and widespread across North America. Most of the population in the United States and Canada moves southward after breeding.

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work for the TBBA project volunteers found Chipping Sparrow breeding in Texas primarily in the northeast, east of the 96th meridian and north of the 30th parallel. Another concentration of breeding records occurs  around the Edwards Plateau with more records scattered between there and northeast Texas. A few confirmed breeding records occur in the Trans Pecos region especially in the Davis and Guadalupe mountains.

The TBBA map provides more detail than recent maps derived from the 34 Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes on which Chipping Sparrows were detected in Texas (Sauer et al. 2004).

In winter Chipping Sparrows are found across all of Texas except for the northern Panhandle (Middleton 1998).

Outside Texas Chipping Sparrow breeds from eastern Alaska and the Northwest Territories (south of the Arctic Circle) across Canada, to Manitoba, Ontario, southern Quebec and southwestern Newfoundland. The breeding range extends south through most of the United States and the highlands of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

Birds breeding north of a line from Los Angles through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas to eastern Virginia move south to winter as far south as central Mexico (Middleton 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Chipping Sparrows are present all year in all parts of Texas and are most common in winter and migration. Most spring migration occurs between mid-March and late April. The species breeds in Texas from late March to early August; eggs have been collected from April 11 to May 29. TBBA volunteers found a pair carrying food on July 5. Fall migrants move through the state mostly between late September and mid-November. Winter residents are present from July 31 to May 18 with numbers greatest from late September to late April (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

BREEDING HABITAT. Chipping Sparrow breeds in Texas between 60 and 2400 m (200 to 8000 ft) elevation in open woods on hills and mountains. Pecan orchards and open oak or elm woods are preferred on the Edwards Plateau, while in the Trans Pecos region the species breeds in pine-oak montane habitat (Oberholser 1974).

The nests, built by the female in 3-4 days, are also found in towns, parks and gardens. The nest is usually placed in a tree or bush (occasionally on the ground) at 0.3 to 7.5 m (1-25 ft) above ground. It is a compact cup made of fine grasses, plant stems, rootlets and occasionally small twigs, and lined with hair and fine grasses. The outside diameter is 11 cm (4.4 in), height is 6 cm (2.3 in), inside diameter is 5 cm (2 in) and cup depth is 4 cm (1.5 in).

The female lays 3-4 (range 2-5) bluish to greenish eggs, indistinguishable from eggs of Clay-colored (Spizella pallida) and Brewer’s (S. breweri) sparrows. The female starts incubation after laying the next to last egg and continues for 11-14 days. The young birds leave the nest from 9-12 days after hatching. Two broods per season are common. Brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) is highly variable between locations. Although parasitism by Bronzed Cowbird (M. aeneus) has not been reported, future atlasers should be aware of the possibility (Oberholser 1974, Harrison 1979, Middleton 1998).

STATUS. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) describe Chipping Sparrow as common on the Edwards Plateau, locally abundant in the Guadalupe and Davis mountains in breeding season, and uncommon in the Pineywoods of east Texas.

Abundance data from BBS routes provide a similar picture, with the highest relative abundance in Texas in the Edwards Plateau region where observers found 3-10 Chipping Sparrows per route per year. Along the Louisiana border the average was also that high on some routes. Around these two areas abundance fell to 1-3 individuals per route (Sauer et al. 2004). The BBS method does not sample isolated areas, such as the Trans-Pecos mountains, well.

In migration and winter this species is common to abundant throughout Texas, although less common on the South Plains and irregular in the Panhandle (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

Comparison of the TBBA map with the map in Oberholser (1974) shows no striking difference. The only apparent change is a possible decrease in nesting sites in the Trans-Pecos region.

Surprisingly only 34 routes of the 2901 BBS routes which detected Chipping Sparrows in the United States and Canada were in Texas. Data from the Texas routes produced a 95% confidence interval of -7.3 to 0.2% population change per year, compared to a survey-wide interval of -0.4 to 0.1 percent change for the period (1966-2003; Sauer et al. 2004). The 95% confidence interval is the area in which in 19 cases out of 20 the actual trend will occur. The -7.3% figure at one end of the confidence interval for Chipping Sparrow in Texas is disturbing, although the small number of routes reporting this species and the relatively low route averages may mean the data sample is inadequate to supply a robust trend estimate.  Text by Robert C. Tweit (2004)


Literature cited: 
Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Middleton, A. L. A. 1998. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) . In The birds of North America, No. 334 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2004. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2003. Version 2004.1. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD (Web site,

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