No species is more typical of the broad expanses of low shrubs across the northern prairies than this sombre-plumaged yet attractive and neatly attired sparrow. The Clay-colored Sparrow is a common and widespread breeding bird of dry uncultivated brush regions of the Great Plains, and Breeding Bird Surveys suggest it is the most numerous passerine of low shrub communities of the northern prairies, especially in the southern parts of the Canadian prairie provinces. The original vegetation of the mixed-grass prairie of the midwestern plains has been almost completely modified through human settlement and containment of prairie fires, resulting in the proliferation of aspen (Populus tremuloides) bluffs and extensive stands of snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis) and American silverberry (Eleagnus commutata). It is in these low shrub communities that Clay-colored Sparrows reach their highest densities.
This species has expanded east and north since the turn of the century in response to suitable habitat created by logging and agricultural activities. The last twenty years, however, have revealed small but significant and consistent declines in breeding populations across the central and southern prairie provinces in Canada and the Great Plains states, most likely a result of recent clearing of shrub communities for agriculture and urbanization.
The first Clay-colored Sparrow was collected at Carlton House on the north Saskatchewan River, in what is now the province of Saskatchewan, by the English explorers Dr. John Richardson and Thomas Drummond in May of 1827. It was shipped back to England and named the Clay-colored Bunting by William Swainson, and the type specimen resides in the University Museum, Cambridge, England.
Clay-colored Sparrows are completely migratory, breeding in the interior of North America and wintering from southern Texas south through Mexico. This is one of the few grassland species to forage off its breeding territory, so defended territories can be very small. Both a nocturnal and diurnal migrant, the species flies low and can be found flocking with a variety of species, particularly conspecifics such as Brewer's Sparrow (S. breweri) and Chipping Sparrow (S. passerina).
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