At a Glance
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.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
New World Sparrows, Perching Birds
Arroyos and Canyons, Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Flitter
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Often migrates in flocks. Migration is mostly through Great Plains; in fall, some strays reach both Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
5-5 1/2" (13-14 cm). Brown ear patch with darker outline; whitish central stripe on crown. Gray neck may contrast with buff on chest. Fall Chipping Sparrows can be similar, but Clay-color lacks dark line from eye to bill, has brown rump. See Brewer's Sparrow.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Gray, Tan, White
Notched, Rounded, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
Series of 4 or 5 toneless, insect-like buzzes.
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.
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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.
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.
Forages mostly while hopping on the ground, occasionally up in shrubs. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks, sometimes mixed with other sparrows.
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.
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.
Surveys indicate a slight decline in numbers during recent decades; reasons not apparent. Nests often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Clay-colored Sparrow. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Clay-colored Sparrow
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.