Spizella passerinachipping sparrow

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Geographic Range

Chipping sparrows are found throughout most of North America. Some populations are migratory, traveling as far north as central Yukon and east to Newfoundland in Canada to breed. They are found in appropriate habitat throughout the United States and Mexico as well. Populations from the southeastern United States, Texas, southern portions of southwestern United States, throughout Mexico, and as far south as Honduras and Nicaragua may be resident year-round. Populations that migrate to breed in northern North America spend winter in the southern portions of the range, along with year-round residents. Birds may also overwinter in more northern areas if the weather remains mild. They are occasionally seen throughout the Greater Antilles in winter. (Middleton, 1998)

Habitat

Chipping sparrows are found in a wide variety of open woodland habitats in winter and breeding ranges, unlike most sparrows which are found mainly in grasslands. They are found in open forests or forest edges, particularly in coniferous forests, and in open, riparian forests. They prefer forests with shrubby undergrowth. Because of their preference for open and early successional forests, chipping sparrows are common in suburban areas, urban parks, orchards, and other human-modified landscapes. During migration they move through a wider variety of habitats, including grasslands, desert scrub, and mountainous areas. Competition with a congener, American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea), may limit their winter distribution. (Middleton, 1998)

Physical Description

Chipping sparrows are small, delicate, active sparrows with a distinctive bright chestnut crown, bordered by white superciliary areas. They have black eyestripes and lores and a buffy white chin. Their back and wings are streaked black and brown, with faint wing bars. The bill is black above and creamy pink or yellow on the lower mandible. The legs and feet are flesh colored at hatching, becoming deeper salmon as birds age. Males and females are similar in plumage. Males are slightly larger in body measurements but may weigh less than females in the summer. Body length is 127 to 147 mm, mass is 11 to 15.5 g. Although they may be difficult to distinguish from other small sparrows in their juvenile plumage, which is buffy, streaked brown overall with black eyestripes and lores, adult chipping sparrows are distinguished by their bright crown and distinctive facial patterning. There are 5 described subspecies, representing geographic variation in plumage color throughout their range. Some of the subspecies migrate, others do not. However, population mixing in the southern portion of the range has not been thoroughly investigated. (Middleton, 1998)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    11 to 15.5 g
    0.39 to 0.55 oz
  • Range length
    127 to 147 mm
    5.00 to 5.79 in

Reproduction

Chipping sparrows have long been considered largely monogamous. However, polygyny and extra pair copulations are documented and incidence may be high in some populations. Recent research suggests that males travel widely outside of their territories in search of additional mating opportunities. Mated pairs form soon after males have arrived on the breeding grounds and established a territory. Males attract females with their songs and chase them or perform displays on the ground. Males and females display to each other by collecting nest materials while together. Females beg for food from males as well. Males guard females after copulation to prevent extra pair copulations. Pairs may stay together through a breeding season or new pairs may be formed throughout the season. There are a few reports of helpers at the nest. (Middleton, 1998)

Chipping sparrows breed from mid to late April through July. Pairs begin building nests within a few weeks of arriving on the breeding grounds. Males and females choose a nest site, usually in a conifer tree or shrub from 1 to 3 meters above ground. They are usually built in thick vegetation to provide cover. Females build nests out of grasses, roots, and other fine materials. If the first clutch fails, a second nest will be built and a second clutch attempted. Most chipping sparrows successfully raise 1 brood, although 2 nesting attempts is typical. Females lay from 2 to 7, usually 4, pale blue eggs with brown blotches at the wider end. They lay 1 egg per day and begin incubating just before the last egg is laid. The incubation period is 7 to 15 days, but usually 10 to 12. Fledging occurs at 8 to 12 days and young become fully independent several weeks after fledging. Males and females can breed in their first year after hatching. (Middleton, 1998)

  • Breeding interval
    Chipping sparrows usually attempt 2 broods each breeding season, sometimes 3. However, typically only 1 brood is successful each season.
  • Breeding season
    Chipping sparrows breed from mid to late April through July.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 7
  • Average eggs per season
    4
  • Range time to hatching
    7 to 15 days
  • Range fledging age
    8 to 12 days
  • Range time to independence
    3 to 5 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Males and females defend a breeding territory and protect young against predators. Newly hatched chipping sparrows are naked and helpless, but grow quickly, becoming fully feathered at 6 days after hatching and about 80% of adult weight and able to fly as soon as 8 days after hatching. Females incubate the eggs and brood the young and males feed females on the nest. Males are responsible for most feeding of nestlings for the first few days. Males will often give food items to the female in the nest, who then passes them to the young. If a female attempts a second brood, the male may be left to care for the previous brood. Young are fed seeds and insects and parents carry fecal sacs away from the nest. Once the young have fledged, they remain near the nest with their parents for another few weeks, when they become independent. Juveniles then form flocks with other young birds. (Middleton, 1998)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

The oldest recorded chipping sparrow in the wild was 9 years and 9 months old. Like most animals, most mortality probably occurs in the first few weeks of life. Most predation is on nestlings, and eggs and nests are vulnerable to extreme weather. During migration, chipping sparrows may collide with large buildings or TV towers and year-round exposure to agricultural pesticides may harm populations. (Middleton, 1998)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    9.75 (high) years

Behavior

Chipping sparrows can hop and run on the ground and use short, rapid, undulating flights of 22 to 32 km/hr. They are active during the day, but especially in the morning and early evening, when they spend much of their time foraging. They are social and not territorial during the winter, but defend territories from other chipping sparrows, except for mates, during breeding season. Males advertise and defend breeding territories with songs and threat displays. Females defend the immediate area of the nest. (Middleton, 1998)

Populations of chipping sparrows may migrate or be year-round residents. Timing of migration varies geographically, but migration peaks through the central United States in April and in the northern parts of their range in May. Fall migration is more spread out, with some birds leaving as early as July and others staying into November, peak migration is in September and October. Chipping sparrows migrate in mixed-species flocks with other sparrow species. (Middleton, 1998)

Home Range

Male breeding territory sizes vary with the habitat, but are from 0.2 to 1 hectare in size. Home range sizes are not known. (Middleton, 1998)

Communication and Perception

Chipping sparrows get their common name from the sharp "chip" call that they make frequently as they forage and interact with others. Variations on this "chip" call are used for contact calls, threats, or begging. They also have a song, a single noted trill made up of rapid repetitions of a "tssip." These songs are produced throughout the day by males during breeding season from an elevated perch. It is thought that the song is used to advertise and defend a breeding territory and to attract mates. They also produce alarm and aggression calls that sound like harsh "zee-zee-zee's." Geographic variation in calls and songs is not reported. (Middleton, 1998)

Chipping sparrows also perform visual displays to communicate, especially during the breeding season. They use body posture to indicate aggression or appeasement. (Middleton, 1998)

Food Habits

Chipping sparrows eat mainly grass seeds and the seeds and fruits of annual plants. They supplement their diet with insects during the breeding season, when up to 38% of the diet may be animal prey. Animal prey includes moths and butterflies, beetles, and grasshoppers and crickets. Chipping sparrows seem to prefer crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) and yellow foxtail (Setaria glauca>) seeds, but will eat a wide variety of small seeds. They typically forage on the ground or low in shrubby vegetation, either picking seeds or insects off the ground or directly from leaves and stems. They regularly ingest grit and feed it to their young to help them process their seed diet. During the breeding season, chipping sparrows forage alone or with their mate. In winter they forage in flocks of 25 to 50 birds that travel together. These foraging flocks may be composed of different species of sparrows and niche partitioning may occur in foraging flocks as a result of differences in bill size or foraging microhabitat. (Middleton, 1998)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

Predation

Chipping sparrows are preyed on by a wide variety of avian and mammalian predators and snakes. Nest predators include black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus), eastern milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum), blue racers (Coluber constrictor), common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), and domestic cats (Felis catus). Adults are taken in flight or when on the nest, largely by avian predators, but including Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperi), prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus), American kestrels (Falco sparverius), loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus), red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), thirteen-lined ground squirrels (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus), and domestic cats (Felis catus). Chipping sparrows use alarm calls and threat displays to deter predators. Their alarm calls may alert other species as well, and all may mob the predator. Adults and nestlings are cryptically colored. (Middleton, 1998)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Chipping sparrow distribution may be limited by competition with a close relative, American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea). Nests are sometimes parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), although chipping sparrows seem to recognize these birds and attempt to exclude them from their territories. Nest parasitism may be as high as 92% in some areas. Chipping sparrows may abandon parasitized nests or they may successfully raise cowbird hatchlings. Winter mixed-species flocks often include eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata), pine warblers (Dendroica pinus), northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), field sparrows (Spizella pusilla), dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), canyon towhees (Pipilo fuscus), rufous-crowned sparrows (Aimophila ruficeps), white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum), and chesnut-collared longspurs (Calcarius ornatus). (Middleton, 1998)

Mutualist Species
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Chipping sparrows are delightful to watch and are common near human habitation because of human modification of habitats. (Middleton, 1998)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no adverse effects of chipping sparrows on humans.

Conservation Status

Chipping sparrow populations may have increased in North America in response to human changes of habitats, such as logging and secondary regrowth of forests. They do well in suburban areas. In recent years, chipping sparrow populations have declined somewhat with successional changes in forests, intensive agriculture, and competition with house sparrows (Passer domesticus), and increased parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). However, chipping sparrows are found throughout a wide geographic range and population sizes are large. (Middleton, 1998)

Other Comments

Investigations of mitochondrial DNA variation in the genus Spizella suggest that it is not a monophyletic group. Relationships with other genera of sparrows are not well understood. (Middleton, 1998)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Middleton, A. 1998. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina). The Birds of North America Online, 334: 1-20. Accessed April 20, 2009 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/334.