McGILL BIRD OBSERVATORY

PHOTO LIBRARY

Chipping Sparrow / Bruant familier (Spizella passerina)

 NOTE: This species account has been moved to Piranga to allow for improved comparison among examples.  
The updated profile is located at:  http://www.natureinstruct.org/piranga/view.php/Canada/37E9CCDA7A4B06ED

 Introductory notes:
Chipping Sparrows are quite variable across ages in terms of rectrix shape and the extent of feather wear.  As a result, molt limits are generally the best clue for ageing, but these can also be indistinct, and not all individuals can be aged reliably, especially in spring.  Juveniles have a distinct plumage but are very similar to Clay-colored Sparrows.


QUICK TIPS:

1) Check the wing for molt limits - HY/SY birds show a constrast between darker/fresher greater coverts vs. the paler block of primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries; on AHY/ASY birds the wing is more uniform in colour and wear

2) Examine the shape and condition of the rectrices - they tend to be narrower and more pointed on HY/SY birds, and by spring also tend to be more visibly frayed / worn, while AHY/ASY birds have somewhat broader rectrices that typically show only moderate wear by spring

Species account updated January 2011

Ageing and sexing guidelines:

January - July:

ASY - U
No molt limit on wing; rectrices relatively broad and truncate; crown with few dark streaks.
SY - U
Molt limit on wing showing paler block of primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries; rectrices relatively narrow, pointed, and worn; crown with some to many dark streaks.

-

July - December:

AHY - U
No molt limit on wing; rectrices relatively broad and rounded, without growth bars.
HY - U
Molt limit on wing, sometimes subtle, showing paler block of primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries; rectrices relatively narrow and pointed.
JUV - U
Breast streaked; crown brown with no or few rufous feathers.
 

Ageing and sexing details:

JAN - JUL: after-second-year unknown

Overall plumage is similar across ages and sexes in spring.  While molt limits may be sufficiently visible on some SY birds when perched, the absence of an apparent limit is not enough to consider an individual as ASY.  Similarly, ASY birds tend to have fewer black streaks on the crown, but only extreme cases are reliable for ageing.  While males may be somewhat brighter, especially on the crown, differences are again generally too subtle to be reliable.


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2007


A view of the crown of the bird above, showing a mostly uniform rusty cap.
Photo by Mar
ie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2007


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2009


The overall appearance of ASY wings can be quite variable, including some that are quite faded and worn, but the key is to look for a uniform pattern across the wing, i.e. the absence of a molt limit. 


This wing is in good condition, with only moderate wear showing on the inner secondaries.
The outer primaries are broad and rounded, and the primary coverts are rounded and
showing rusty edging. However, many ASY wings are not in such good condition.

Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2009


A somewhat more worn wing, paler overall and with less edging on the primary coverts,
but still overall fairly uniform in appearance.

Photo by Mar
ie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2007


A particularly worn ASY wing, especially the median coverts, greater coverts, and inner
secondaries. Note a complete lack of edging to the primary coverts, but that overall the
colour tone and condition of the wing is still relatively uniform.

Photo by Peter Pyle, Howell Woods (NC), May 2006


Chipping Sparrows of all ages have relatively narrow rectrices, but those of ASY birds are on average broader and more rounded at the tip than those of SY birds; nevertheless, tail shape should be used only in combination with other ageing criteria.


A relatively typical ASY tail, showing some wear at the tips of feathers, but overall
comparatively broad, rounded, and in good condition for a Chipping Sparrow.

Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2009


Another example of a similar pattern, but with a somewhat paler colour tone.
Photo by Mar
ie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2007

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

JAN - JUL:  second-year unknown

Occasionally molt limits on the wing are distinct enough on SY birds to be seen while perched, and some may also have distinct black streaks in the crown to separate them from ASY birds.  However, it is rare that these features are sufficiently distinct to be reliable for ageing; wing and tail are generally much better indicators.


A relatively typical SY Chipping Sparrow, largely indistinguishable in this view from ASY.
Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2005


Another SY Chipping Sparrow, with what appears to be a somewhat less extensive crown
and paler wing, but even so, this view is far from conclusive.

Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2009


SY Chipping Sparrows show a molt limit between the greater coverts and the retained block of paler brown juvenile feathers comprised by the primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries.  The outer primary coverts may be particularly narrow and pointed.  The overall condition of the wing tends to be more worn than on ASY birds.


An SY wing in relatively good condition, but notice the uniformly pale brown block of primary
coverts, primaries, and secondaries, and the pointed and frayed primary coverts in particular.

Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2008


A much more worn SY wing, with extensive fraying on most feathers, and the outer primary
coverts again particularly pointed.

 
Photo by Peter Pyle, Howell Woods (NC), May 2006


The rectrices of SY birds tend to be more narrow and pointed, and are on average somewhat more frayed than those of ASY birds, though this can vary considerably.


This tail is in relatively good condition, but does show the typical SY rectrix shape.
Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2009


A somewhat more typically worn tail, showing fraying and some broken tips; the central
rectrices in this case are particularly narrow and frayed.

Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2008


A rare case of extremely narrow and pointed rectrices.
Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), May 2005

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

JUL - DEC:  after-hatch-year unknown

AHY birds usually have more rufous feathers on the crown than HY birds, but there can be overlap, and the wing and tail provide more reliable indicators of age.


A typical AHY Chipping Sparrow, showing some remnant rusty feathers in the crown.
Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2009


Another AHY, showing how the plumage can take on a richer brown tone in sunlight.
Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2005
 


There is no molt limit on AHY birds (although the darker greater coverts may suggest a pseudolimit).  Primary coverts are typically broad and rounded.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2005
 


Rectrix shape on Chipping Sparrows varies less by age than in some sparrows, but tends to be broader and more rounded on AHY birds.


Although reasonably broad, these rectrices are rather pointed for an AHY bird and the tail
therefore does not provide good clues to age; this individual was aged by wing instead.

Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2005

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

JUL - DEC:  hatch-year unknown

HY birds usually have fewer rufous feathers on the crown than AHY birds, but there can be overlap, and the wing and tail provide more reliable indicators of age.  Appearance can be a bit variable, as some individuals retain some juvenile breast streaking into winter.  


An HY bird already showing some rust in the crown.
Photo by Simon Duval, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2010


An individual with some streaking retained on the breast.
Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2005
 


There is a molt limit on HY birds between the replaced formative greater coverts and the retained block of juvenile primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries; however, the contrast can be subtle in fall when all feathers are still relatively fresh.  The outer primary coverts on HY birds tend to be narrower than on AHY birds.


An example showing how subtle the molt limit can appear, but note the contrast between
the greater coverts and inner secondaries.

Photo by Simon Duval, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2010


An example from a bit later in fall, by which time there may already be a somewhat greater
contrast between the replaced and retained blocks of feathers.

Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2010

 
A more distinct example of the contrast shown by the molt limit.
Photo by Barbara Frei, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2007


Chipping Sparrows have somewhat pointed rectrices at any age, but the feathers are narrower for HY birds.  Uniform growth bars across the tail are also often present.


A typical HY tail, with narrow and pointed rectrices, distinct growth bars across the tail,
and the central rectrices already showing signs of wear.

Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2005


In this case, one of the central rectrices has been prematurely replaced, showing a distinct
contrast in colour and shape compared to the remaining juvenile rectrices.

Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2010

JUN - SEP:  juvenile unknown

Juvenile Chipping Sparrows are easily aged by the fine streaking across the breast, but (where populations overlap) need to be examined closely to rule out Clay-colored Sparrow.  


A typical juvenile Chipping Sparrow, heavily streaked below, and with just a hint of rufous
apparent in the crown.

Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, Cypress Hills Provincial Park (AB), August 2010


The primary coverts on HY birds are narrower than on AHY birds, but when fresh on juvenile birds are usually not yet distinctly paler than the adjacent greater coverts.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, Cypress Hills Provincial Park (AB), August 2010

 


Chipping Sparrows have rather pointed rectrices at any age, but the feathers are narrower for HY birds. However, when fresh (as on this juvenile) they may not appear distinctly different from those of an adult; the overall plumage of a juvenile is therefore best for ageing.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, Cypress Hills Provincial Park (AB), August 2010

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW 

2002- The Migration Research Foundation Inc.