Spizella pallida

Status:  Common regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Rare casual summer visitor north. Accidental in winter.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM7429, 17 May 1890 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).

Spring:  Apr 15, 15, 15 <<<>>> May 30, 31, Jun 1

Earlier dates are 28 Mar 2012 Kearney Co, 9 Apr 2017 Lincoln Co, 9 Apr 2019 Wayne Co, 11 Apr 2011 Buffalo Co, and 11 Apr 2011 Cuming Co.

Later dates are of two on 4 Jun 2013 Gordon Cemetery, Sheridan Co, and 5 Jun Keith Co (Brown et al 1996).

Migration is from mid-Apr through late May.

  • High counts:  875 at Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co 7 May 2005, 750 in Rock Co 15 May 2018, 535 in Hall Co 13 May 2006, and 512 there 11 May 2002.

Summer:  There is no evidence to confirm breeding in the state, despite statements to the contrary by AOU (1957, 1983) and Bent (1968). There are several statements in the literature that imply breeding, but none eliminate the possibility of confusion with Chipping Sparrow, or late spring or early fall Clay-colored Sparrow migrants. Perhaps of most interest was a report of one netted 8 Jul at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co that had a brood patch (Brown et al 1996); this date is early for a fall migrant and is plausible as a local breeder based on egg dates in North Dakota and Minnesota, which range from mid-May through late June (Winter et al 2004; Grant and Knapton 2020).  There is an intriguing report of nesting near Rushville, Sheridan Co around 1956 which stated “Song, Vesper, Lark, Clay-colored, and Field Sparrows nest in the tall grass by the buildings” but also mentioned that large flocks of Chipping Sparrows were present there for three weeks in the spring at a time when Chipping Sparrow was a rare breeder in central Nebraska (Gates 1956).

Mossman and Brogie (1983) found two singing, territorial birds during the 1982 breeding season, both in Brown Co sandhills, and considered this species a “Probable nester”. Youngworth (1955) also considered this species a rare breeder in the same general area. The Mossman and Brogie sightings were 25 May and 1 Jun; the possibility of them being migrants cannot be ruled out. One was recorded in Dixon Co 12 Jun 2020 ( Clay-colored Sparrow breeds relatively close to Nebraska in north-central and northeast South Dakota (Tallman et al 2002) and more recently in Gregory Co (north of Boyd and Keya Paha Cos in Nebraska) in south-central South Dakota (Drilling et al 2018). BBS data (Sauer et al 2017) indicate the species has recently increased in numbers.

There are two recent reports of singing birds in Scotts Bluff Co: two singing at separate locations at Scotts Bluff NM, Scotts Bluff Co 14 Jun 2019 and one singing a few miles south of Scotts Bluff NM, Scotts Bluff Co 21 Jun 2016. A specimen, UNSM ZM7436, taken 4 Aug 1914 at Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co, may have been summering. There are no documented breeding records for Wyoming (Faulkner 2010), although  Dorn and Dorn (1990) reported “multiple males singing along Highway 24” on 10 Jul 1974 near Alva, Crook Co in northeast Wyoming, and two egg sets were said to have been collected near Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1889 (Faulkner 2010).

Fall:  Aug 20, 21, 22 <<<>>> Oct 30, 31, 31

Earlier dates are a specimen, UNSM ZM7436, taken 4 Aug 1914 at Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co, and 11 Aug 2018 Sioux Co.

Later dates are 2 Nov 2014 Dixon Co, 22 Nov 2018 Sarpy Co, and 23-24 Nov 2017 Lancaster Co.

Migration is from late Aug through early Nov, peaking during Sep. Occurrence is statewide, although much larger numbers are seen in the western half of the state in fall.

  • High counts: 300 at West Ash Creek, Dawes Co 4 Sep 2016, “hundreds” in Lincoln and Custer Cos 27 Sep 2004, “hundreds” at Broken Bow, Custer Co 6 Sep 2008, 176 in Banner and Kimball Cos 14 Sep 2013, and 100 at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 30 Aug 1998.

Winter: The only report of overwintering is of one at a feeder in extreme southeast Sioux Co Dec 2002-Feb 2003; it was netted 12 Feb and found to be healthy except that it lacked one eye (Ruth Green, personal communication).

Comments: Wayne Mollhoff provided information from notes made by L. M. Gates of a visit to Scotts Bluff Co in 1913 with Swenk in which five nests of Brewer’s Sparrows (originally thought to be Clay-colored Sparrows) were observed at the University Experiment Station Farm. There are no subsequent nesting reports from Scotts Bluff Co. Perhaps this correction might be applied to a statement by Neidrach (1932) that Clay-colored Sparrows bred in the 1930s on streams near and southeast of Pine Bluffs while Brewer’s Sparrows bred on the neighboring uplands, although the mention of both species is interesting.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)


Photograph (top) of a Clay-colored Sparrow at Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Sarpy Co 9 May 2008 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed.  Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1983. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 6th ed. Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Bent, A.C. 1968. Life histories of North American Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Buntings, Towhees, Finches, Sparrows, and allies. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 237. Three Parts. Dover Publications Reprint 1968, New York, New York, USA.

Brown, C.R., M.B. Brown, P.A. Johnsgard, J. Kren, and W.C. Scharf. 1996. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station area, Keith and Garden Counties, Nebraska: Seasonal occurrence and breeding data. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 23: 91-108.

Cortelyou, R.G. 1977. 1976 Christmas Count. NBR 45: 7-13.

Dorn, J.L., and R.D. Dorn. 1990. Wyoming Birds.  Mountain West Publishing, Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA.

Drilling, N.E., E.D Stukel, R.A. Sparks, and B.J. Woiderski. 2018. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of South Dakota. SDGFP, Wildlife Division Report 2017-02. South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, Pierre.

Faulkner, D.W. 2010. Birds of Wyoming. Roberts and Company, Greenwood Village, Colorado, USA.

Gates, D. 1956. Notes. NBR 24: 10-11.

Grant, T.A. and R.W. Knapton. 2020. Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Mossman, M.J., and M.A. Brogie. 1983. Breeding status of selected bird species on the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska. NBR 51: 52-62.

Neidrach, R.J. appended to:  Notes on Mammals and Birds seen along the Southern Border of Nebraska,  August 20, 21, and 22, 1932.  Typed manuscript in the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Archives, University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

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 (Nebraska).  Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Tallman, D.A., Swanson, D.L., and J.S. Palmer. 2002. Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA.

Winter, M., D.H. Johnson, J.A. Shaffer, and W.D. Svedarsky. 2004. Nesting biology of three grassland passerines in the northern tallgrass prairie. Wilson Bulletin 116: 211-223.

Youngworth, W. 1955. Some birds of the Quicourt Valley. NBR 23: 29-34.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 2 Feb 2021