Attracting White-Throats, Juncos & Other Sparrows

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Dark-Eyed Junco Eating Nyjer Seed in the Snow
Dark-Eyed Junco Eating Nyjer Seed in the Snow

When I was a kid, we called Dark-Eyed Juncos “snow birds.” Until I started bird watching later in life, I thought that was their actual name. To us, seeing a snow bird was a sign. It meant that it was going to snow, leading to snowmen, snow forts, saucering down the side hill and a day off of school. I suspect this childhood joy may still be a little part of the reason that I still love these little birds today. Even today, when I know that birds don’t cause the weather, I still feel joy when I see the first of the juncos and their winter pals, the White-Throated Sparrows arrive in mid-fall. Here is what I do in my yard to make sparrows happy during the winter.

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Chipping Sparrows Arrive

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Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

While this winter’s White-Throated Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos will soon be leaving us to migrate up to Canada where they breed, Chipping Sparrows are now returning to Maryland and other parts of the US and Canada from their winter spent in the south.

The first Chipping Sparrow of the spring showed up in our yard this week. These tiny little guys are definitely welcomed back!

Chipping Sparrow Eating Seed
Chipping Sparrow Eating Seed

Identifying Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrows are the cutest member of the sparrow family that I’ve seen. They are tiny compared to most other sparrows, with crisp neat feathers that never seem out of place. In breeding plumage, they have a pale-grey/frosty-white head and chest, a rufous cap and a black stripe through their eyes, brown wings with black streaks, and a long forked tail. (In the winter their coloring isn’t as bright and contrasty.)

Chipping Sparrows look quite a bit like American Tree Sparrows, especially in the winter when chippies are a bit duller and browner. The color of the line through the eye differs though (black for the Chipping Sparrow and reddish brown for the American Tree Sparrow.) The American Tree Sparrow is just a tad bigger as well.

Petite is the word I’d use for these birds. If you see them by themselves or just look at pictures in a bird guide, you might not realize just how tiny they are. It is when you see them hopping around next to other sparrows that their tiny size is so very apparent.

A Chipping Sparrow and Two Dark-Eyed Juncos
A Chipping Sparrow and Two Dark-Eyed Juncos

Relative Sizes of Sparrows

Check out this Chipping Sparrow next to a a Dark-Eyed Junco (above.)

A Fox Sparrow and a Chipping Sparrow
A Fox Sparrow and a Chipping Sparrow

And here he is again next to a Fox Sparrow who is even bigger (above.)

This got me curious about the relative sizes of sparrows, so I used the iBird app to look up the typical length of some of the sparrows we tend to see in our area:

  • Chipping Sparrow: 5.5 in
  • Field Sparrow: 5.75 in
  • Savannah Sparrow: 5.25 – 6.25 in
  • Dark-Eyed Junco: 5.75 – 6.5 in
  • Song Sparrow: 5.75 – 7.5 in
  • American Tree Sparrow: 6.25 in
  • White-Throated Sparrow: 6.25 – 7.5 in
  • Fox Sparrow: 6.75 – 7.5 in
  • Eastern Towhee: 7 – 7.5 in

More Chipping Sparrow Tidbits

Chipping Sparrows eat insects and seeds. (In my yard, they like white proso millet on the ground and sunflower hearts from the Squirrel Buster Plus feeders.) I see them most often on the ground with other sparrows. They can also snag insects in flight too, like a flycatcher.

Chipping Sparrow Eating Sunflower Hearts
Chipping Sparrow Eating Sunflower Hearts

Where to Find Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrows like areas with a mix of open trees and grass. So you can find them on forest edges as well as in our yards and parks. For nesting, they prefer shrubby plants like conifers.

Liking hair to line their nests, you might see one plucking hair out of another animal (maybe your snoozing family dog.)

Female Brown-Headed Cowbird
Female Brown-Headed Cowbird

Chipping Sparrows & Cowbirds

Chipping Sparrows can have problems with the much larger Brown-Headed Cowbird’s parasitic habit of laying eggs in their nests. The cowbird usually removes one of the sparrow’s eggs first, apparently in hopes of fooling the mother. Sometimes the mother sparrow abandons the nest and any previous eggs. Other times she continues with the nest. When the cowbird hatches, the larger fosterling will compete with the bird’s own nestlings for food.

Chipping Sparrow Song

The male’s song is a rapid trill of repeating notes sung from a height. It is is sometimes described as mechanical and sounding like a sewing machine. (Listen to Chipping Sparrow Song.)

Chipping Sparrow Eating Millet
Chipping Sparrow Eating Millet

Have you seen a Chipping Sparrow in your yard lately? Keep an eye out for these cute little birds!


More Posts About Sparrows

Sources/Learn More

All About Birds Chipping Sparrow Section

Audubon’s Chipping Sparrow Page

Chipping Sparrow vs Tree Sparrow on Feederwatch Site

iBird App

Peter Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion (Amazon)

Into the Nest; Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds by Laura Erickson and Marie Read (Amazon)

Learn More About Maryland Birds

See my post on Central Maryland Backyard Birds.

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Winter Backyard Birds: Birds in A Winter Storm

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Fox Sparrow & Northern Cardinal in snow
Fox Sparrow & Northern Cardinal

Winter backyard birds can be intense. Food sources can be limited so winter bird feeders can be very busy.

The most active and interesting days are often not the bright beautiful sunny days but stormy days. This is when birds are eager to eat as much as they can to keep energy levels high. Yesterday’s winter storm brought us just such a day with really interesting feathered visitors and activity, so I have pictures and stories to share with you.

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