Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Clay-colored Sparrow - Spizella pallida
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General Comments The Clay-colored Sparrow was primarily a "Western"/Midwestern" species until a few decades ago. However, the breeding range expanded eastward to southern Ontario and western New York, as birds took advantage of using Christmas tree farms and other early succession habitats. Not surprisingly, sightings in the Southeast have increased, even though nearly all birds still pass on to winter south of the country, mainly in Mexico. Interestingly, small numbers linger into early winter near the coast, and a few even overwinter. Despite being closer to the main part of the breeding range, Clay-coloreds remain very rare in the mountains and Piedmont of the state. The species is most often found with groups of Field Sparrows, and other sparrows, usually at brush piles, hedgerows, weedy fields, and margins of maritime shrub thickets.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient, and sparse winter resident, mainly near the coast. In fall, rare to uncommon along the coast and in Tidewater; can be occasionally uncommon at Pea Island and Fort Fisher. Casual to very rare farther inland in fall. In winter, rare and local into early winter near the coast and in Tidewater, and casual to very rare farther inland; formerly regular just west of Lake Phelps, and presently in central Carteret, where a few overwinter. Essentially no northbound migration, though one seen at the Moore County Airport on 9 Apr 2019 was certainly a northbound migrant, as was one photographed in the Sandhills Game Land (Scotland) on 3 Apr 2022. Only a few other inland spring records anywhere in the province. Mainly mid-Sep to early Nov, but some into late Apr. Peak counts: 23, North River Farms (Carteret), 10 Feb 2013; 17 at this location, 15 Feb 2015 and again on 19 Apr 2015; 16 at this location, 20 Feb 2011; 10, just west of Lake Phelps, 11 Mar 2013; 9, Pea Island, 11 Oct 1998.
Piedmont Transient, essentially in fall and winter. Very rare in fall and winter (about 21 records in fall and 13 in winter). Casual to very rare in spring: singles at Fuquay-Varina, 15 Mar - 20 Apr 1990; at Cowan's Ford Refuge (Mecklenburg), 5 May 2001; again at that refuge, 1 May 2018; at Price Park (Guilford), 23 Apr 2019; in the Uwharrie National Forest (Randolph), 21-22 Apr 2020; and at two yard/feeder sites in Wake from 23-26 Apr 2021. Mainly mid-Oct to mid-Nov, but a few into winter. One photographed in Maiden (Catawba) on 26 Sep 2020, and one seen at Howerton Road (Guilford) on 30 Sep 2018 were early for inland records. One spent three winters in Lenoir (Caldwell); in the third year it was present from 16 Oct 2006 to 24 Apr 2007 [Chat 71:94 link]. Another spent much of the winter at Raleigh from 2 Jan - 4 Feb 2024. Peak counts: 2, Iredell, 17 Jan 2010.
Mountains Transient. Very rare in fall, winter, and spring, nearly all records in low elevations in the southern counties. One photographed in Boone (Watauga), 3 May 2014, and another photographed in Boone, 16 Oct 2016, might be the only records for the northern half of the mountain region. In fall, 11 reports from 6 Sep - 20 Oct, and twice in Nov; two winter reports (Dec and Jan), and five spring reports, all in the last half of Apr. One photographed at 5200 feet elevation at the Grassy Mine Overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway (Jackson) on 30 Sep 2021 was at a remarkably high location. Peak counts: 2, on several dates.
Finding Tips Your best bet is probably Fort Fisher in Sep and Oct. A few were being seen semi-regularly in winter just west of Lake Phelps, but these birds have been difficult to find in the past few years. Though it seems to winter routinely, in small numbers, at North River Farms (Carteret), this is a privately-owned site, with a long walk to access it.
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Attribution LeGrand[2024-05-14], LeGrand[2024-02-11], LeGrand[2023-03-31]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.