Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Name Truly Fits

Often habits and body markings are the clue to a bird's name. Just so the chipping sparrow's moniker comes from the dry, one tone chip he "chips" over and over again.

Chippies, or chipping sparrows, are the smallest of the species. You may know them by the name Chip-bird, Hair-bird, Hair sparrow or Red-headed chipping bird.

Measuring only 5 to 5 1/2 inches, this littlest sparrow wears atop his head a cinnamon-rufous cap edged in broad white stripes. A dark streak seems to go through his dark eyes. His throat, breast and rump are silvery gray. His coat is light brown streaked with darker brown. The female is dressed like her mate but sometimes in duller colors. Immature chippies are browner looking than either of the adults and have not yet developed any rufous in the crown.

This spiffy little sparrow is a dooryard bird in our area and nests in evergreen shrubbery and trees around our homes as well as in fields and along roadsides. Winter populations of this social bird are much heavier than summer populations because winter visitors merge with local yokels, creating tremendous numbers.

In early spring, northern visitors begin to migrate from wintering playgrounds in small waves of from a half-dozen to a dozen or more to northern nesting grounds.

This littlest sparrow prefers evergreen trees (in the South, pines) or evergreen shrubs to place its small, delicate cup of grass and curly rootlets, cleverly interwoven and lined with hair. Chippy nests have been found lined with black horse hair, white hair, and even red hair, almost the color of their crown. The red hair could have come from a fox, horse, a dog or even a human.

Four bullish-green eggs, thinly spotted with blackish-brown, are laid in the small cradle. Incubation lasts for northern nesting chippies for 11 to 14 days, with the nestlings fledging in about the same period. In the warm South, the incubation period is close to 11 days and the nestlings fledge in 10 to 11 days.

Its diet is mostly wees seed though it does eat a great many insects and worms, largely caterpillars. I watched one morning as a chippy pounced upon a tent caterpillar. Scores were crawling about not long out of the web. While attempting to swallow it, I thought he would choke, but after several jerks and yanks of his head and neck, one big gulp took it down. Such a large worm for such a small stomach.

The chippy's tinkling trill is easily confused with the quavering trill of the dark-eyed junco and the more musical and slower trill of the pine warbler. Until you are able to distinguish the three (veteran bird watchers are sometimes confused), you must observe the bird to be sure which of the three is singing to you.

The first winter visitors of these friendly little chippies usually arrive in the Central Savannah River Area in late October or the first few days of November where they mingle with the southern born. We always find them on bird walks around these dates, hobnobbing with white-throated, song, field, vesper and swamp sparrows. Along wood edges we observe them with chickadees, Carolina wrens, titmice and kinglets.

The southern chippy could nest in your yard this summer. Look for him.