One of the most beloved birds across America is the little chipping sparrow. This little red-capped sparrow probably lived in or along the edge of natural openings in the forest, such as along streams and lakeshores or along the edge of natural clearings where trees had blown down or died from old age or other reasons.
Then when human beings started to make small clearings in the forest for their homes, towns and agriculture, the chipping sparrows found more habitat available and began to increase in numbers. Almost everyone seemed to have a pair nesting in their backyard.
I well recall the chipping sparrows that nested in our yard every year when I was a child. My father had planted a Japanese kerria shrub on the north side of the cow barn. This shrub loves shade, so this was a good location for it, and I think my mother was especially fond of it because it has green bark in winter, which seemed to say spring was coming even when everything was covered in snow.
The chipping sparrows nested every year in the shrub, and although the nest was probably not more than five feet above the ground, I remember my mother lifting me up, so I could see the four tiny greenish-blue eggs, which were covered with dark brown or black spots, splotches and squiggles.
Here in our Colorado yard, the migration of chipping sparrows reaches its peak during the last weeks of May, although a few may move through as early as March. This year, the peak day was May 15, when I counted nine chipping sparrows on the feeder and 12 or more feeding on the ground below. By May 23, they had all moved on with only four summer residents still coming to the feeder.
There is also a period of fall migration usually in September and October when these little sparrows move southward for many days. There are two subspecies of chipping sparrows found in Colorado, and their slight differences and the plumage of juvenile birds often confuse people. Migration often brings a few clay-colored sparrows. These very similar birds need to be carefully studied especially in late summer and early fall when immature plumage can still be seen.
As we finally move into warmer weather, watch for chipping sparrows at your feeder. They prefer small seed, such as white proso millet; sunflower seeds seem to be just a bit large for them to handle. Watch as they make trips back and forth to feed their young, and you may be able to locate their nest. The eggs take about 11 days to hatch if we have warm weather but take a few days longer when it is cold. A small number of chipping sparrows may winter in Colorado along the southern border, but the vast majority move farther south into Mexico.
I received a first report of a rufous hummingbird from Louise Mounsey on May 25. This is unusually early in a year when most things have been late. As a rule, the first rufous hummingbirds show up about July 4, but many birds seem to be changing their migration dates as the effects of the current weather change is being felt.
For you folks who are newcomers, I will try to write a column on hummingbirds next week as they are incredible little birds. Late summer is also a good time to study shorebirds. Unmated birds often leave their northern breeding grounds early, and any time after the 4th of July, they begin to appear on the mudflats along the edges of shrinking reservoirs such as Chatfield and Barr Lake. Enjoy the summer birds for our season is short and all too soon they will be gone.