Adult nonbreeding plumage. Note: drab reddish crown and large bill.
  • Juvenile
  • Adult nonbreeding plumage. Note: pink bill and rufous tinged crown.
  • Adult nonbreeding plumage. Note: drab reddish crown and large bill.

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Chipping Sparrow

Spizella passerina
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
The Emberizidae family is made up of the New World sparrows, longspurs, and some of the buntings. Most forage and nest on the ground. Most emberizids are seedeaters and have short, thick bills adapted for this diet, although they all eat insects and other arthropods at times, and feed them to their young. They are typically monogamous. Females generally build the nests and incubate the eggs and young, but both parents feed the young. Clutches are small, generally three to five eggs. Many of these birds are small, brown, and streaked, and stay close to cover, making identification challenging.
Common summer east. Fairly common west.
  • Species of Concern
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

The Chipping Sparrow is a small sparrow with a slightly notched tail and--during the breeding season--a distinctive russet cap. Gray underparts and a gray rump contrast with streaked wings with two white wing bars. A clear, gray band runs across the nape of its neck, splitting the brown- and black-streaked head and back. In breeding plumage, the Chipping Sparrow has a white stripe over its eye with a dark stripe below it, a gray cheek, and a lighter throat patch. Juveniles are streaked and, while some molt earlier, most Washington birds keep their juvenile plumage through the fall migration. In non-breeding plumage, the closely related Clay-colored Sparrow is similar in appearance. The Clay-colored can be distinguished from the Chipping by a brown, rather than gray, rump, a darker face pattern, and the absence of a moustache. The two species also use different habitats, but are sometimes found in mixed flocks in the non-breeding season.


A sparrow of dry, open forests, the Chipping Sparrow is well adapted for suburban environments, although they are less common in the suburbs in Washington than in other parts of the country. In Washington, they are found in open forest edges and clearings (especially Ponderosa pine), wooded parks, orchards, gardens, and in Ponderosa pine patches in steppe zones. They are also common in trees near agricultural fields, although in these areas, their productivity is reduced by Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism.


Chipping Sparrows forage in flocks, except during the breeding season. They usually forage on or near the ground in open areas near cover. When foraging, they run or hop, stopping often to scratch the ground for seed. The Chipping Sparrow's song is a uniform trill. Its call is a hard chip.


The Chipping Sparrow eats mostly seeds, especially in the fall and winter. During the breeding season, they eat a number of crawling insects as well.


Males return to the breeding area a week or so before the females, and begin to establish territories. When the females return, pair bonds form. Although monogamy is common, some males may have more than one mate. The male and female choose a nest site together, usually in a conifer, within 15 feet of the ground. The female builds the nest, a loose, open cup made of grass, weeds, and rootlets, lined with hair and fine grass. It is often situated at the outer end of a branch in a clump of needles or leaves. The female incubates 4 eggs for 10 to 12 days. The male feeds the female while she incubates. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest 9 to 12 days after hatching. The young can make sustained flights within three days of leaving the nest, although the parents continue to feed them for about three more weeks. Second broods are not uncommon, but most pairs raise only one brood a season.

Migration Status

Northern populations of Chipping Sparrows (including those that breed in Washington) migrate, wintering across the southern US into Mexico. Migration is often in flocks and usually spread out over a long period in both the fall and spring. Birds leave in August on the west side, and in early September on the east side of the Cascades. Returning birds arrive in April.

Conservation Status

Although the Chipping Sparrow is still common and widespread across its range, its population has ebbed and flowed as a result of human influences. Originally, the Chipping Sparrow was probably not a common species, but may have benefited from European settlement. The population peaked in the 1850s, when it was the most common city sparrow. Since the 1900s, Chipping Sparrow populations have been declining due to habitat loss, Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism, and competition with House Sparrows and House Finches. The population is still likely to be greater than it was before European settlement. In Washington, Chipping Sparrows are common east of the Cascades, but declining in the San Juan Islands and on the Olympic Peninsula due to loss of prairie habitat and increase in Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, Chipping Sparrows have experienced a significant decline statewide since 1966. The Washington Gap Analysis Project considers them an at-risk species in this state.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Chipping Sparrows are common in open pine forests and other appropriate habitat throughout eastern Washington. They are uncommon in western Washington, with a patchy distribution often closely tied to stands of oak (Quercus spp.). In western Washington, they are most commonly found around Fort Lewis and other forest clearings in Pierce, Thurston, and southwest King Counties. The open, grassy farmlands in southwest Washington provide good habitat, and some Chipping Sparrows can be seen in Clark County. Similar habitat in the San Juan Islands sustains a population that is currently common, but declining. On the Olympic Peninsula, they are uncommon from Hurricane Ridge to Dungeness. They are also found in the western Cascades at higher elevations. In other parts of western Washington, they are rare.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast RUUUR
Puget Trough FFFFU
North Cascades RFFFRR
West Cascades FFFFU
East Cascades UCCCCCU
Okanogan UCCCCF
Canadian Rockies UFFFFFU
Blue Mountains RFCCCCR
Columbia Plateau UCCCCU

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
Early Warning

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern