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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Clay-colored Sparrow

Spizella pallida ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

The Clay-colored Sparrow’s buzzy song is a signature sound of the vast shrublands of the northern prairie and Great Plains. Though they’re not brightly colored, their pale tones and overall clean, crisp markings help set them apart from other sparrows—especially useful on their wintering grounds, where they often flock with other species. These active birds tend to forage within the branches of shrubs or on the ground beneath cover. Though still very numerous, their numbers have slowly declined over the past 40 years.

Funky Nests
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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Clay-colored Sparrows are petite, trim sparrows with a small bill, slender body, and fairly long, notched tail. The small, slender shape of these and other Spizella sparrows is distinctive.

  • Color Pattern

    These are mostly pale, tan-and-gray birds with a contrasting face pattern. Their pale gray collar is a helpful mark at all times of the year. The crown is finely streaked, with a pale stripe over the eye and darker cheek. The dark eyeline does not extend in front of the eye.

  • Behavior

    Clay-colored Sparrows typically forage low in shrubs, or on the ground within close reach of shrubby cover. Males sing from near the tops of low shrubs. In winter, look for them in flocks of other sparrows, including Brewer’s, Chipping, and Lark.

  • Habitat

    They breed in shrublands, field edges, and thickets across the northern prairies. At the eastern edge of their range, look for them in Christmas tree farms and grassy areas with short, scattered conifers. They spend winters in desert grasslands, upland plains, thorn scrub, fields, and brushy hillsides.

Range Map Help

Clay-colored Sparrow Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Clay-colored Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • Small buffy sparrow
    • White central crown stripe
    • Thin, dark "mustache" extends from base of bill
    • Pale lores and gray nape
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth, Minnesota, May 2011
  • Breeding adult

    Clay-colored Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • Dainty, small-headed sparrow
    • White central crown stripe
    • Buffy flanks
    • Thin, dark "mustache" stripes
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth, Minnesota, May 2011
  • Breeding adult

    Clay-colored Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • Small sparrow with buffy tones overall
    • White central crown stripe
    • Gray nape
    • Thin dark stripe at base of bill
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth, Minnesota, May 2011

Similar Species

  • Nonbreeding adult/immature

    Chipping Sparrow

    Nonbreeding adult/immature
    • Larger and longer-billed than Clay-colored Sparrow
    • Grayish below, not buffy
    • Dark lores
    • © Jamie Chavez, Santa Maria, California, November 2007
  • Nonbreeding adult/immature

    Chipping Sparrow

    Nonbreeding adult/immature
    • Larger, longer-billed than Clay-colored Sparrow
    • Grayer below
    • Dark lores
    • © Tripp Davenport, Big Springs Ranch, Texas, January 2009

Similar Species

Breeding adult Chipping Sparrows have bright rusty caps, but nonbreeding and immature Chipping Sparrows can be very similar to Clay-colored Sparrow. Chipping Sparrows are overall darker and colder gray. Both species have a gray nape, but the Clay-colored’s paler or buffier tones make this field mark stand out more. Facial patterns are helpful: Chipping Sparrows have a complete dark line through the eye all the way to the bill, with less contrast compared to the Clay-colored’s pale eyebrow and dark mustache or malar stripe. Brewer’s Sparrows are more nondescript than Clay-colored Sparrows, with much less contrast on the face and overall grayer coloration.

Find This Bird

Within their range, Clay-colored Sparrows are numerous. In summer, visit shrublands or field edges and keep an eye and an ear out for a sparrow buzzing about in a thicket, typically low to the ground. Listen for the male singing a distinctive dry series of short buzzes. On the wintering grounds they’re liable to be mixed in with flocks of other sparrows. You’ll need to look carefully for their combination of overall slim shape, buffy tones, and crisp facial markings.

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