Chipping sparrows are widespread in North America in the spring and summer, arriving from wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Mexico. Nest sites are chosen in low branches of conifers and other dense foliage, and cup-shaped nests are woven from grasses. To learn more about the nesting habits of these native sparrows, please keep reading.
Chipping sparrows arrive on their North American breeding grounds from March to May each year, choosing sheltered nesting spots in evergreen trees. They raise between one and two broods in season, with pairs reusing materials from nests they may have used in previous years.
Several nests may be attempted, and are typically flimsy, and prone to falling apart. These are then abandoned and a stronger nest built which is capable of supporting eggs and young.
Read on to learn more about nest-building strategies, and location choices of breeding chipping sparrows.
The nest of a Chipping Sparrow, with four young chicks inside
Chipping sparrows build their nests at the tips of branches low down in conifers. In the east of their range breeding will also occur in deciduous woodland, farmland, parks and backyards.
While nests are usually reasonably flimsy and not up to being reused for more than one clutch, chipping sparrows do regularly return to a breeding territory that they have used in a previous season, and may reuse materials from a former nest to construct a new one.
Chipping sparrows will nest in low branches of trees that offer safe shelter and suitable cover, and if these are present in a backyard, then a breeding pair may set up home there.
They may be attracted to backyards that also offer a supply of fresh water, and access to a variety of native grasses to feed on.
Close up of a female Chipping Sparrow sat on the nest
No reports exist of chipping sparrows using nest boxes, and only a handful of isolated reports exist of the species building nests somewhere other than in the branches of a tree.
Such out-of-the-ordinary places include on a mower in a disused tool shed, in a hanging basket and even on chili peppers hung to dry.
Conifers provide favorite nesting spots for chipping sparrows, offering shelter and protection with their dense foliage. Tree species often chosen as nesting spots include spruce, pine, juniper and cedar.
Sometimes deciduous nests are used instead, with crab apple, honeysuckle, maple and hawthorn popular choices.
Nests built by chipping sparrows are usually located at a height of at least 0.9 m (3 ft) above ground level. Although lower sites may occasionally be used, most chipping sparrow nests in the range of between 0.9 m and 3 m (3 ft and 10 ft) above the ground, and generally no higher than 4.6 m (15 ft).
Chipping Sparrows tend to prefer conifers to build their nests in
Chipping sparrows’ nests are neat, compact structures, pulled loosely together into a cup-shaped nest, with an internal central depression in which the eggs are laid.
Chipping sparrows’ nests are relatively small, measuring on average 11.2 cm (4.4 in) across and 5.7 cm ( 2.2 in) high. The internal cup is 3.7 cm (1.5 in) deep and 4.8 cm (1.9 in) wide.
Close up of a Chipping Sparrows nest, with unhatched blue eggs inside
Males arrive on nesting territories ahead of females, between early March and May, with pairs forming within days of the female’s arrival. Nesting will typically begin two weeks after pairs form, with the earliest eggs of the season laid in March and the latest broods complete by August.
Incubation is brief, typically between 10 and 12 days, but some records of as little as 7 days have been observed. Fledging takes place from between 9 and 12 days, and occasionally as early as 8 days after hatching.
The earliest eggs are laid in March, shortly after chipping sparrows arrive on their breeding grounds following their winter migration. Any time between March and May is typical for a first clutch.
If a nest fails, a further clutch may be laid in an alternative nest, and second broods may be attempted, with egg-laying observed as late as August on rare occasions.
Chipping sparrows that breed in north and central North America usually migrate south in winter, to the southern United States and into Mexico. They do not nest in winter, but instead form larger loose flocks, and will roost together in oak woodlands, orchards or in trees on the edges of wild pastures.
Young Chipping Sparrow chicks inside of the nest
Nest spots, chosen by the male and female together, are usually located at the tip of a branch, supported by smaller twigs. Cup-shaped nests are loosely woven together by the female from grasses, roots, and weeds and then lined with softer materials.
Nests are compact and open, and if construction fails partway through, the site is abandoned, and a new attempt is begun elsewhere. Construction takes, on average, three to four days,
Grasses and weeds are woven loosely together to form a rounded cup-shaped nest. Softer weeds and roots, and animal hair, where available, is added to the interior of the nest as a lining.
Chipping sparrow pairs select a nest site together, but when it comes to construction, female chipping sparrows work alone. Males remain nearby, guarding the female and protecting the nest site but play no active role in the crafting.
Chipping Sparrow collecting materials to build the nest
Eggs laid by chipping sparrows are usually blue, ranging from sky blue to a paler shade, and are streaked with irregular brownish-black streaks.
On rare occasions eggs may be white, with the same blotchy marks. Glossy and smooth-shelled, chipping sparrows’ eggs are subelliptical in shape, and measure 1.5 to 2 cm (0.6 to 0.8 in) in length and 1.1 cm to 1.5 cm (0.4 in to 0.6 in) in width.
Chipping sparrow clutches typically contain four eggs, although anything in the range of 2 to 7 eggs is typical.
Only female chipping sparrows incubate eggs, and are brought food by males who remain nearby and fiercely defend the site from threats.
Females may briefly leave the nest to forage for food in nearby shrubbery, but typically form strong attachment to their nest and its contents and are observed to rarely leave their incubation duties.
Chipping Sparrow eggs
Fledging for young chipping sparrows takes place between 9 and 12 days after hatching. Rare reports exist of 8-day-old chicks fledging, but their chances of survival are reduced when they leave the nest this early.
In the initial weeks after fledging, parents continue to feed and support young until they are able to forage and survive independently.
One brood in a season is normal for chipping sparrows, with two broods successfully raised by between 12 and 24 percent of pairs. A third brood may be attempted on very rare occasions, but the majority of these will fail.
Chipping Sparrow nestings
Several Chipping Sparrow nests may be started and abandoned without being completed during the breeding season, with the materials from these unfinished nests being reused for new attempts. Once eggs have been laid, desertion by the parents may occur if the site is disturbed by a predator.
A new nest may then be constructed and a replacement clutch laid, depending on how far into the breeding season it is.
In the early stages of laying, before the clutch is complete, female chipping sparrows may leave their nests unattended. On initial inspection a clutch may appear to have been abandoned, but brooding can resume after up to 2 to 3 days at this stage, with no harm to the unhatched eggs.
Although unusual, it is not unheard of for a chipping sparrow to build its nest on or close to the ground. Nests are usually constructed at least 0.9 m (3 ft) off the ground, but occasionally if there is dense undergrowth or a suitably sheltered tangle of roots, a lower-level nest might be built.
Overnight roosting spots are commonly chosen in the upper branches of evergreen trees. With the exception of an incubating or brooding female, chipping sparrows do not sleep on nests at night.
Recently fledged Chipping Sparrow chick
Chipping sparrows are attracted to landscapes planted with native and ornamental grasses, as the seeds offer an essential food resource. A supply of fresh water, and dense foliage or tree cover will also offer potential nest sites.
Chipping sparrows construct a compact cup-shaped nest that it weaves together from grass, weeds and rootlets. The nest interior is lined with fine grasses and animal hair. In the past, horsehair was the most common lining material.
Chipping sparrows are a native species, unlike house sparrows, which were introduced from Europe in the 19th century and are considered an invasive species.
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