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Clay-colored Sparrow Life History


ScrubClay-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.Back to top


SeedsClay-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. Back to top


Nest Placement

ShrubClay-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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Incubation Period:10-14 days
Nestling Period:7-9 days
Condition at Hatching:Naked with sparse downy feathers.
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Foliage GleanerClay-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.Back to top


Low ConcernClay-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. Back to top


Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Grant, Todd A. and Richard W. Knapton. (2012). Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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