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Clay-colored Sparrow


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
Relative Size
About the size of a Chipping Sparrow; slightly smaller than a Song Sparrow.

Cool Facts

  • The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates Clay-colored Sparrows are still the most numerous songbird of shrub communities on the northern prairies—although their numbers have been slowly declining for the last several decades.
  • Clay-colored Sparrow young leave the nest before they can fly. They hop to the ground from their nest in a shrub and run an average of 40 feet to seek cover in a thicket, where their parents will continue to feed them. They won’t fly for the first time for another 6 to 8 days.
  • Clay-colored Sparrows, unlike most species, forage away from their breeding territories. Because they use different areas for breeding and feeding, they have the smallest breeding territory of any Spizella sparrow species.
  • Clay-colored Sparrow pair bonds don’t last long. Males generally are loyal to their territory year after year, but females typically choose a different breeding area each season. So mated pairs persisting over subsequent years are rare.
  • After their eggs hatch, Clay-colored Sparrows remove the eggshells to keep the nest clean. Most of the time parents carry the shells away from the nest, but sometimes they eat them.
  • The oldest-known Clay-colored Sparrow was at least 6 years, 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta in 1995. It had been banded in the same province in 1989.



Clay-colored Sparrows live in low shrublands during the breeding season. These can be open shrublands, thickets along the edges of forests, fields, and waterways, or shrubby areas regenerating from fire. On their winter range, they live in deserts and upland plains among thorn scrubs, grassy fields, and brushy hillsides.



Clay-colored Sparrows mostly eat the seeds and leaf buds of various grasses, forbs, and shrubs, including tumbleweed, alyssum, lambsquarters, soapberry, mustard, and mesquite. They stick close to the ground to feed. They also eat insects such as leafhoppers, ants, grasshoppers, and moths, as well as spiders. Clay-colored Sparrows are unusual in that they feed in areas outside their breeding territories. Foraging areas include shrubs and thickets, grassy fields, and brushy edges of rivers and streams.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7 in
1.7 cm
Egg Width
0.5 in
1.3 cm
Incubation Period
10–14 days
Nestling Period
7–9 days
Condition at Hatching
Naked with sparse downy feathers.
Nest Description

Females build the nest, though males help with collecting grasses and twigs for building material. She uses these to build a platform, and then shapes the cup by turning around in the nest and arranging the rim with her bill. She lines the nest with fine grasses and rootlets as well as hair from horses, deer, and cattle. Nest construction takes 2 to 4 days. The nest is cup shaped, about 4.6 cm across and 3.8 cm deep.

Nest Placement


Clay-colored sparrow nests are hidden close to the ground (often less than a foot high) in the lower branches of shrubs such as snowberry or rosebush; early nests may be built in grass tussocks. They choose shrubs with very little light penetration, so as to elude detection by predators.


Foliage Gleaner

Clay-colored Sparrows are bustling little birds, jumping around from branch to branch within a shrub and flitting from bush to bush. On the ground, they move in short hops under the cover of thicket. Males sing to establish their territory, typically choosing a lower perch within a shrub (unlike many other birds, which choose the topmost branches to broadcast their songs). Once territories are set, males rarely intrude on one another’s territory; if they do, a short chase ensues, but almost never an actual fight. Only monogamous bonds between Clay-colored Sparrow mates have ever been recorded, although these typically last only for the duration of the breeding season, and most individuals form new pairs the next year. For the winter migration, they gather in flocks of up to 100, and may join up with other species such as Brewer’s, Chipping, and Lark sparrows. On their winter range, they feed in more open country, in grassy areas or desert plains, but they never stray far from brushy areas.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Clay-colored Sparrows are numerous, but their population appears to be declining, notably in Canada, the stronghold of their breeding range. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates that across the species' range there has been a 51% overall decline in numbers between 1966 and 2015. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 56 million, with 85% breeding in Canada, 92% spending the winter in Mexico, and 15% sending at least part of the year in the U.S. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Clay-colored Sparrow is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Local populations have been affected by agricultural spraying for pests, conversion of brushy areas to farm fields (especially in Canadian prairie provinces and Great Plains), and heavy livestock grazing in fields. The species’ range expansion eastward into Michigan, Ontario, and New York seems to be due to the regeneration of logged areas, abandonment of farm fields, and new Christmas tree plantations that now provide suitable Clay-colored Sparrow habitat where previously there was none. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, habitat management for Sharp-tailed Grouse seems to have benefited Clay-colored Sparrows as well.


Range Map Help

Clay-colored Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Medium- to long-distance migrant. Clay-colored Sparrows breed across the northern Great Plains and winter in south Texas and Mexico. They migrate in small flocks. Some individuals usually show up on each coast during fall migration.

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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eBird Occurrence Maps, Clay-colored Sparrow

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