Take a walk across the mixed grass prairies of North Dakota during the spring and summer and you are likely to hear a series of short buzzing sounds emanating from a patch of western snowberry (what some people call buckbrush) or perhaps a thicket of some other shrubs. You may associate the buzzing with some type of insect, but it isn’t. It is the call of the clay colored sparrow.
There it is again ... "Song of clay colored sparrow."
Clay colored sparrows are among the most numerous songbirds of the northern prairie shrub communities. Their breeding range runs roughly from Montana eastward to the Great Lakes states and well as southern Manitoba and much of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Here in North Dakota they can be found across the state where they prefer the native mixed grass prairie with scattered shrubs such as patches of western snowberry or thickets of silverberry chokecherry, Juneberry, buffaloberry, and rose.
Although you may commonly hear this bird, seeing it is a bit more difficult. Unlike many grassland birds where the males seek out the highest perch to announce their presence and defend their territory, the male clay colored sparrows choose to do their announcing from the lower branches of shrubs. Look for these high-octane feather balls flitting about close to the ground where they feed mainly on seeds.
Clay colored sparrows have been described as slender and trim. They are pale tan and gray with a small bill. Look for a pale gray collar which is a key characteristic in identification. And of course if you hear one singing, the identification will be confirmed.
As you might expect, these birds’ nest in the shrubs. Nests are generally located about a foot above the ground and well protected among the lower branches of the shrub. The nest is small, a bit less than two inches across and slightly less deep, and is composed of twigs and grasses. For finishing touches the cup is lined with grass and perhaps some hair. They will produce 1-2 broods each summer with an incubation time of 10-14 days and nesting period of 7-9 days.
Although the clay colored sparrow is still commonly observed on our prairies, they have declined by 51% from 1966 to 2015 in the U.S. That is probably due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Plus cowbirds are also known to parasitize their nest, thus reducing their reproductive output.