A Chipping Sparrow’s Song

On a cold, clear morning, shortly after sunrise, the songs of Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, White-throated Sparrow, Brown Thrasher and Eastern Towhee made the morning sound and feel like spring. Three Red-bellied Woodpeckers moved from tree to tree, and a Downy Woodpecker flew into the top part of a pecan tree and drummed loudly on a large branch. I could hear the drumming of three or four other woodpeckers in other trees around the yard and the edge of the woods. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees rustled as they kicked up leaves in the mulch. Tufted Titmice and an American Goldfinch flew back and forth from the hanging feeder. Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered their squeaky calls from the pines, and a scattering of American Robins foraged in the grass and flew up into trees with nervous chuckles.

But the real highlight and news of the early morning was a Chipping Sparrow’s song. It stood out for me like a shimmering ray of sunlight – a long, level, delicate trill that came from a perch in young pines across the street on the edge of the road. It sang several times, steady trill after trill. It surprised me to hear it, because it seems early in the year for a Chipping Sparrow to sing – but there it was, one reason the morning sounded so much like spring.

Chipping Sparrows are small, common birds that feed most often in grassy spots, often in small congregations along the roadside, during the winter months, that flush up together and scatter in flashes of wings when disturbed. From a distance, on the ground, they look like anonymous little brown-streaked birds, but to take a good, close look at one perched in a tree – with its pale gray breast, brown and dark-streaked back, gray face and sharp black streak through the eye, and bright reddish crown – is to realize how uncommonly pretty it is. They’re generally quiet and unobtrusive, blending easily into the background and not often noticed. Their deceptively simple songs, like their appearance, also reward a second look – or listen. Usually described as plain, almost mechanical trills, a Chipping Sparrow’s song often varies in subtle and intriguing ways.

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