Clay-colored Sparrow in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, March 2020, No 295

Clay-colored Sparrow by Jean Iron


The Clay-colored Sparrow was primarily a prairie shrubland species that spread eastward in response to suitable habitat created by land clearing and logging. The Clay-colored now breeds across Ontario, but is uncommon to rare at scattered locations. The Carden Alvar is a reliable place to find this much sought-after sparrow. The key to finding it is recognizing its distinctive buzzy song and knowing its habitat.


IDENTIFICATION: The breeding adult is a small pale sparrow with a plain breast, pale central crown stripe and brown cheek patch outlined in black. It lacks the reddish cap of Chipping and Field Sparrows, which may occur in the same habitat. Streaked juveniles in summer resemble same age Chipping Sparrows.


VOICE: The male’s song is an easily recognized series of 2-4 slow insect-like buzzes, bzzz-bzzz-bzzz, reminiscent of a Golden-winged Warbler’s song. Usually utters 7-9 songs per minute from the same perch. One male in Ontario sang 71 consecutive songs.


HABITS: The Clay-colored is not a shy or elusive sparrow, but is easily overlooked unless heard singing. It usually sings from a low exposed perch (sometimes hidden) in a bush or small tree. The Clay-colored sings persistently in the early morning and late afternoon, and often during the heat of the day and sometimes at night. It feeds mainly on the ground. Nests are frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.


HABITAT: In Ontario, the Clay-colored Sparrow nests in a broad range of habitats, both deciduous and coniferous, such as shrubby grasslands, overgrown fields, forest openings and edges, regenerating burns, and in young pine and spruce plantations bordering fields. It has an affinity for Christmas tree plantations.


CONSERVATION: The Clay-colored Sparrow is not listed as a species at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).


HYBRIDS: Hybrids between Clay-colored and the closely related Chipping Sparrow have been reported a number of times in Ontario.


BEST PLACES: The Clay-colored Sparrow is rare on the Carden Alvar at scattered locations. Some effort is needed to find it. The best spot has been Prospect Road south of Eldon Station Road. Also listen for it along Wylie and Shrike Roads, and elsewhere in scrubby field habitat. Check eBird for the latest reports.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for comments and Jean Iron for the photo.


REFERENCE: Grant, T. A. and R. W. Knapton. 2012. Clay-colored Sparrow. Birds of North America. Published online by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York