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Chipping sparrows known as social birds

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By Sylvia Brockner

One of the fondest memories of my childhood is that of the chipping sparrows that nested every year among the orange rose-like flowers of the vine that grew on a trellis between the window and the door to the cow barn. This location was subject to considerable traffic, as both people and farm equipment passed within a few feet of it frequently. The nest was about 5 feet up in the vine, just high enough that my mother had to lift me up to see the greenish-blue eggs with their purple-black markings.

These little chipping sparrows are widespread across America. Their brown back, white, unstreaked breast and red cap are unmistakable. They arrive here in mid-April and stay until mid-October. They nest in my yard or my neighbor’s every year and bring their streaked young to our feeders. In September, they attract other migrating chipping sparrows to our feeders for a few days before they all move south for the winter. A very few chipping sparrows may remain in southern Colorado during the winter, but the majority of them move farther south into Mexico.

Chipping sparrows have sometimes been called the “social sparrow,” for they are the most friendly of the sparrow clan. They nest in shrubs or small trees and in yards near houses, with apparently little concern about people coming or going near their nests. While they do nest in Denver, they are more abundant in the foothills, seeming to prefer the open ponderosa pine forests between 6,000 and 8,000 feet.

While many sparrows nest on the ground beneath overhanging grasses, the chipping sparrow prefers to be well above the ground in the lower branches of shrubs. Their nests often appear to be rather sloppily built of plant stalks, fibers and grasses, but the interior is finely constructed and lined with hair. Cow hair is often used, and the long hair from horses’ manes and tails is prized for this use. If these are not available, dog hair and even pig bristles are known to have been used to make this finely woven sturdy lining. Because of this, they were frequently called “hair bird” or “hair sparrow” in the past. They usually have two broods in the same nest; the eggs hatch in 11 to 12 days, and the young fledge in another two weeks. Once the young are able to fly and feed themselves, the family groups join others and become migrating flocks. When wet, sloppy snow covered our area on Tuesday, May 13, we were surprised to see at least six chipping sparrows at our feeders. There were undoubtedly more than that, but I was able to count only six at one time. We fed them well, and by the next morning all but our resident pair seemed to have continued on their way.

We had heard about the big movement of birds on Monday, May 12, from several sources. Loie Evans reported 12 robins in the parking lot at Evergreen Lake, also two soras in the wetlands and a yellow warbler. She and others who were working the Hogback at Morrison, as part of the Bear Creek drainage breeding bird census, reported a steady northward movement of birds along the ridge, including yellow warbler, chipping sparrows and blue-gray gnatcatchers. Then the big snow brought it to a standstill for a day.

On Wednesday, May 14, the common yellow throat was back in his little willow-studded corner of the wetlands near the Lake House, and the yellow warblers were singing in the willows at Wilmot Creek.

All in all, the spring migration, which started early, is now running late. This is no doubt due to the unusual number of spring snowstorms, which have caused the birds to be grounded for a few days here and there along the way. However, black-headed grosbeaks and western tanagers have returned, so we are fairly well up to date. The weathermen are predicting another snow tomorrow and then hopefully some really nice weather. The much-needed moisture is most welcome, and the willows along Bear Creek have not only burst into bloom but are now sporting tiny new leaves. With the snowmelt, everything is turning green! Spring is here, and it will all too soon be summer.