Photo: Glenn Bartley/Vireo

Clay-colored Sparrow

Spizella pallida

This rather plain and pale little sparrow is a typical summer bird of the northern prairies, where the males perch in the tops of low thickets to sing their flat, monotonous buzzes. It is sometimes a very common migrant in a narrow corridor through the Great Plains; to the east and west of there it is a rare stray, but small numbers reach both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts every year, mainly in fall. Clay-colored Sparrows seen out of range are usually with flocks of Chipping or Brewer's sparrows, close relatives with similar habits.
Conservation status Surveys indicate a slight decline in numbers during recent decades; reasons not apparent. Nests often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat Scrub, brushy prairies, jack pines. Breeds in shrubby areas including stands of bushes on open prairies, edges of woodlands, young second growth, understory in jack pine woods. May overlap with similar sparrows, but generally in more open areas than Chipping Sparrow, heavier brush than Brewer's Sparrow. In migration and winter, found in brushy fields, thickets, dry scrub, desert grassland.
This rather plain and pale little sparrow is a typical summer bird of the northern prairies, where the males perch in the tops of low thickets to sing their flat, monotonous buzzes. It is sometimes a very common migrant in a narrow corridor through the Great Plains; to the east and west of there it is a rare stray, but small numbers reach both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts every year, mainly in fall. Clay-colored Sparrows seen out of range are usually with flocks of Chipping or Brewer's sparrows, close relatives with similar habits.
Photo Gallery
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Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly while hopping on the ground, occasionally up in shrubs. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks, sometimes mixed with other sparrows.


Eggs

3-5, usually 4. Pale blue-green, with dark brown spots usually concentrated at larger end. Incubation is mostly by female, about 10-14 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 7-9 days after hatching, jumping to ground and then scrambling into cover; unable to fly for about another week. 1 brood per year, sometimes 2.


Young

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 7-9 days after hatching, jumping to ground and then scrambling into cover; unable to fly for about another week. 1 brood per year, sometimes 2.

Diet

Mostly seeds and insects. Diet is not known in detail, but feeds mostly on seeds at most times of year, especially those of weeds and grasses; also some leaf buds, catkins, berries. Also eats many insects, especially in summer, including caterpillars, grasshoppers, true bugs, ants, damselflies, and many others, as well as spiders. Young are fed mostly insects.


Nesting

Males sing in spring to establish and defend nesting territories. During the breeding season, adults often forage away from nesting area, unlike most songbirds which do all their foraging within the breeding territory. Nest site is usually very low, either on ground or in low shrubs, up to 5' high. In some areas, nests built early in season placed on ground, later ones higher. Local populations often specialize in nest sites; in one Manitoba study, almost all nests built in snowberry bushes; other common sites include rosebushes and clumps of grass. Nest (built by female) is open cup of grass, weeds, twigs, rootlets, lined with fine grass, rootlets, animal hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Often migrates in flocks. Migration is mostly through Great Plains; in fall, some strays reach both Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

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Migration

Often migrates in flocks. Migration is mostly through Great Plains; in fall, some strays reach both Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Series of 4 or 5 toneless, insect-like buzzes.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
New World Sparrows Perching Birds

Clay-colored Sparrow

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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