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Anna B. Comstock

The Chipping Sparrow

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HIS midget lives in our midst, and yet, not among all bird kind, is there one which so ignores us as does the chippy. It builds its nest about our houses, it hunts for food all over our premises, it sings like a tuneful grasshopper in our ears, it brings up its young to disregard us, and every hour of the day it "tsip-tsips" us to scorn. And, although it has well earned the name of "doorstep sparrow," since it frugally gathers the crumbs about our kitchen doors, yet it rarely becomes tame or can be induced to eat from the hand, unless it is trained so to do as a nestling.

Its cinnamon-brown cap and tiny black forehead, the gray streak over the eye and the black through it, the gray cheeks and the pale gray, unspotted breast distinguish it from the other sparrows, although its brown back streaked with darker, and brown wings and blackish tail have a very sparrowish look; the two whitish wing bars are not striking; it has a bill fitted for shelling seeds, a characteristic of all the sparrows. Despite its seed-eating bill, the chippy's food is thirty-eight per-cent insects, and everyone should read what Mr. Forbush says about the good work this little bird does in our gardens and to our trees. It takes in large numbers cabbage caterpillars, the pea louse, the beet leaf-miners, leaf hoppers, grasshoppers, cut worms, and does its best to annihilate the caterpillars of the terrible gypsy and browntail moths. In fact, it works for our benefit even in its vegetable food, as this consists largely of the seeds of weeds and undesirable grasses. It will often fly up from its perch after flies or moths, like a flycatcher; and the next time we note it, it will be hopping around hunting for the crumbs we have scattered for it on the piazza floor. The song of the chippy is more interesting to it than to us; it is a continuous performance of high, shrill, rapid notes, all alike so far as I can detect; when it utters many of these in rapid succession it is singing, but when it gives them singly they are call notes or mere conversation.

One peculiarity of the nest has given this sparrow the common name of hair-bird, for the lining is almost always of long, coarse hair, usually treasure trove from the tails of horses or cattle switched off against boards, burs or other obstacles. Of the many nests I have examined, black horsehair was the usual lining; but two nests in our yard show the chippy to be a resourceful bird; evidently the hair market was exhausted and the soft, dead needles of the white pine were used instead and made a most satisfactory lining. The nest is tiny and shallow; the outside is of fine grass or rootlets carefully but not closely woven together; it is placed in vine or tree, usually not more than ten or fifteen feet from the ground; a vine of a piazza is a favorite nesting site. Once a bold pair built directly above the entrance to our front door and mingled cheerfully with other visitors. Usually, however, the nest is so hidden that it is not discovered until after the leaves have fallen. The eggs are light blue tinged with green, with fine, purplish brown specks or markings scrawled about the larger end.

The chippy comes to us in April and usually raises two broods of from three to five "piggish" youngsters, which even after they are fully grown follow pertinaciously their tired and "frazzled out" parents and beg to be fed; the chippy parents evidently have no idea of discipline but indulge their teasing progeny until our patience, at least, is exhausted. The young differ from the parents in having streaked breasts and lacking the reddish crown. In the fall the chippy parents lose their red-brown caps and have streaked ones instead; and then they fare forth in flocks for a seed-harvest in the fields. Thereafter our chippy is a stranger to us; we do not know it in its new garb, and it dodges into the bushes as we pass, as if it had not tested our harmlessness on our own door-stone.

Reference—Wild Life, Ingersoll, p. 132.


The chipping sparrow.

Lesson XX

Leading thought—The chipping sparrow is a cheerful and useful little neighbor. It builds a nest, lined with horsehair, in the shrubbery and vines about our homes and works hard in ridding our gardens of insect pests and seeds of weeds.

Methods—Begin this lesson with a nest of the chippy, which is so unmistakable that it may be identified when found in the winter. Make the study of this nest so interesting that the pupils will wait anxiously to watch for the birds which made it. As soon as the chippies appear, the questions should be asked, a few at a time, giving the children several weeks for the study.

The Nest


1. Where was this nest found? How high from the ground?

2. Was it under shelter? How was it supported?

3. Of what material is the outside of the nest? How is it fastened together? How do you suppose the bird wove this material together?

4. Of what material is the lining? Why is the bird that built this nest called the "hair bird?" From what animal do you think the lining of the nest came? How do you suppose the bird got it?

5. Do you think the nest was well hidden when the leaves were about it? Measure the nest across and also its depth; do you think the bird that made it is as large as the English sparrow?

The Bird

6. How can you tell the chippy from the English sparrow?

7. Describe in your note-book or orally the colors of the chippy as follows: beak, forehead, crown, marks above and through the eyes, cheeks, throat, breast, wings and tail. Note if the wings have whitish bars and how many.

8. Describe the shape of the beak as compared with that of the robin. What is this shaped bill meant for?

9. What is the food of the chippy? Why has it been called the doorstep-sparrow?

10. Note if the chippy catches flies or moths on the wing like the phoebe-bird.

11. Why should we protect the chippy and try to induce it to live near our gardens?

12. Does it run or hop when seeking food on the ground?

13. How early in the season does the chippy appear and where does it spend the winter?

14. Can you describe the chippy's song? How do you think it won the name of chipping sparrow?

15. If you have the luck to find a pair of chippies nesting, keep a diary of your observations in your note-book covering the following points: Do both parents build the nest? How is the frame-work laid? How is the finishing done? The number and color of the eggs? Do both parents feed the young? How do young chippies act when they first leave the nest? How large are the young birds before the parents stop feeding them? What are the differences in color and markings between parents and young?


A bubble of music floats, the slope of the hillside over;

A little wandering sparrow's notes; and the bloom of yarrow and clover,

And the smell of sweet-fern and the bayberry leaf,

On his ripple of song are stealing,

For he is a cheerful thief, the wealth of the fields revealing.

One syllable, clear and soft as a raindrop's silvery patter,

Or a tinkling fairy-bell; heard aloft, in the midst of the merry chatter

Of robin and linnet and wren and jay, one syllable, oft repeated;

He has but a word to say, and of that he will not be cheated.

The singer I have not seen; but the song I arise and follow

The brown hills over, the pastures green, and into the sunlit hollow.

With a joy that his life unto mine has lent, I can feel my glad eyes glisten,

Though he hides in his happy tent, while I stand outside, and listen.

This way would I also sing, my dear little hillside neighbor!

A tender carol of peace to bring to the sunburnt fields of labor

Is better than making a loud ado; trill on, amid clover and yarrow!

There's a heart-beat echoing you, and blessing you, blithe little sparrow!

—Lucy Larcom.