Clay-colored Sparrow in Carden
published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, March 2020,
Sparrow by Jean Iron
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
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.
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.
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
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.
The Clay-colored Sparrow is not listed as a species at risk by
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
Hybrids between Clay-colored and the closely related Chipping
Sparrow have been reported a number of times in Ontario.
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
I thank Michel Gosselin for comments and Jean Iron for the photo.
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