Sunday, July 22, 2018

Separating Spizellas: Identification of Clay-coloured vs Chipping Sparrow in Fall Plumage




While the identification of breeding plumaged Sparrows is generally quite straight forward.Note in the photos below there is nothing difficult about separating these species in Spring. However, things tend to get much trickier in fall, when these Sparrows lose their more distinctive features, in favour of a more drab appearance, not to mention the appearance of juveniles.

Clay-coloured Sparrow singing in Newfoundland
Clay-coloured Sparrow, Newfoundland, June
Chipping Sparrow in Newfoundland in June
Chipping Sparrow in Newfoundland, June

For this article I will be focusing on the genus Spizella and more specifically the Clay-coloured and Chipping Sparrow complex. From a Newfoundland perspective this generally isn't a big deal, since both Chipping Sparrow and Clay-coloured are rare in the province, aside from a small breeding population of Chipping Sparrows in SW Newfoundland. However, both Chipping and Clay-coloured Sparrow are see in Newfoundland in fall in small numbers, usually in October. A flock of 4 Clay-coloured Sparrows in Ferryland on the Avalon Peninsula last fall was extraordinary, since these birds are generally seen in singles, since they are a vagrant to the island. Before

So, there is some reason to be familiar with these two species, which seem to cause birders some trouble. However, if you know what to look for I'd argue that most individuals of these two species can be separately fairly easily. If you do not have a working knowledge of the facial features of Sparrows and the terminology, I'd recommend you take a quick look at this article I write earlier this summer, which will give you a nice refresher!


There are a few features we will key in on to separate these two look-alike species, namely, facial pattern,  and rump colour.

Facial Pattern

Both Chipping Sparrow and Clay-coloured Sparrow have complex facial patterns, but there a couple of key features to note when trying to separate them that I will highlight in the photo below. Note especially differences in the shape, extent and darkness of the eye line, and the lores (area between eye and bill) as well as the submoustial stripe. The presence of a darker submoustacial stripe often on Clay-coloured Sparrow tends to more clearly devide the malar from the malar from the throat, meaning that the malar is often more noticeable on a Clay-coloured than a Chipping Sparrow in the field.

As well, the cheek pattern (auriculars) on a Clay-coloured Sparrow tends to less defined. In Chipping Sparrow the dark eye line, being more noticeable provides a clear border for the upper edge of the ear coverts. Chipping Sparrow has a weaker submoustacial line, it's malar  (pale line formed by the bottom edge of the ear coverts and and sub moustachial line) is not as prominent and seems to blend more with the throat. 

There is a lot of technical jargon in these two paragraphs I know.!If you can't follow it, see the link above for a break down of all of the facial feature of Sparrows. Read these paragraphs a few times if you have to and refer to the photo, so you can see the differences.


Note especially the darker more prominent eyeline and lore of Chipping Sparrow. Clay-coloured on average has more noticeable moustache and sub moustachial stripe and always has pale lores


Based on what you learned above, which species is this?

Rump Colour

Fortunately even if you flush one of these species and you see it fly away there is important information to be gleaned! Aside from differences in facial features these species have characteristically different rump colours. This holds true for all individuals, both juveniles and adults. Chipping Sparrow always has a gray rump, while the rump of Clay-coloured Sparrow is always brown. Note the differences in the photo below.
comparison of Clay-coloured and Chipping Sparrows
Note the gray rump of the Chipping Sparrow on the left and the brown rump of the Clay-coloured Sparrow on the right. Also, note how the gray rump of Chipping Sparrow contrasts with the brown back, while the rump and back of Clay-coloured is much more concolourous.
I'll conclude with a couple more, unlabelled photos, see if you can applied what you learned in the article to identify them correctly and confidently!

Clay-coloured Sparrow
Easy right!?
Chipping Sparrow
Which one?


Please check the rest of my blog for 100+ other articles, including many more ID articles, general interest pieces etc. Also, if you would like to know when we post new content, follow Birding Newfoundland on Facebook. To get information on tours and ID workshops please see our website!


You may also be interested in,

An Illustrated account of Dovekie, AKA Bullbird

Northern Goshawk: An Episode of Raptor on Raptor Violence!

Birder's: A Subculture?

Answer to the quiz birds above are, 1) Clay-coloured, 2 Clay-coloured and 3 Chipping

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