A Chipping Sparrow’s Song

On a sunny, mild, spring-like morning, a Chipping Sparrow perched on a fencetop along the edge of a yard and sang – a long, sweet, level trill. The red-brown of its crown was very bright, its breast glowed smooth gray in the sunlight, its back a streaked dark brown, and a sharp dark eyeline marked the pale face. It’s the first Chipping Sparrow I’ve heard singing this season, and its trill was a new part of the soundscape, joining the songs of Brown Thrashers, Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird and Carolina Wren.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed in trees around the edge of the woods, a Northern Flicker called a loud kleer, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered its jidit-jidit. The zhreeees of Pine Siskins mixed with the mews of American Goldfinches, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered their squeaky, cheery calls; a Downy Woodpecker whinnied, a Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrr, and one or two Golden-crowned Kinglets in the bare limbs of some oaks called their high, whispery ti-ti-ti.

It was a gorgeous morning with a cloudless blue sky. Two Turkey Vultures and one Red-shouldered Hawk were soaring. Dozens, maybe hundreds of American Robins were scattered on the grass of yards all through the neighborhood. Bright and brassy and colorful, they’re everywhere – harbingers of Spring.

But it was the Chipping Sparrow’s trill that felt like the highlight of the morning – because it’s new. Even though they’re among the most common birds here year-round, they are favorites of mine, in part because, except when they’re singing, they are quiet, unobtrusive little birds, and often go unnoticed. Unlike the constantly chattering, familiar Titmice, Chickadees, and Carolina Wrens, the Chipping Sparrows call in plain quick chips.

During the winter months, dozens of them may be foraging in short brown grass along a roadside or in a yard, and I don’t even see them until something startles them and they suddenly spray up in a sparkling flash of wings, into nearby low branches, in a characteristic way. Even when they do start to sing, a Chipping Sparrow’s colorless trill is not flamboyant or musical, though it’s one of the most characteristic and common birdsongs in our neighborhood in spring and summer. It’s quiet and steady and plain – or seems to be, though when I listen closely, I often hear different qualities in the trill – at different times of day, or different times of the season, or different individual birds – subtle variations that are not obvious.

So I find them interesting, and think a Chipping Sparrow may like some quiet persons, not calling attention to itself, but when you get to know it, revealing unexpected facets.

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