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Clay-colored Sparrow - Spizella pallida

Chipping Sparrow has a partial preformative molt, and limited prealternate molts that may include a mix of inner greater coverts, tertials, and central rectrices. Most individuals can be aged by a combination of molt limits and feather condition, but some intermediates may be difficult to assess by spring, and should be considered M-FCA (AHY). Sex is reliably determined only via brood patch / cloacal protuberance during the breeding season.

Juvenile plumage is very similar to that of Chipping Sparrow; exercise caution where ranges overlap. Clay-colored Sparrow tends to be smaller, with a proportionately longer tail, and has fainter streaking on the breast.

Quick tips

  • Check the wing for molt limits - a contrast between darker/fresher greater coverts vs. the paler block of primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries is indicative of FCF (HY), and additional contrasts may appear among the greater coverts, tertials, and rectrices in FCA (SY) individuals, whereas the wing is more uniform in colour and wear on DCB/DCA (AHY/ASY) birds.
  • Examine the shape and condition of the rectrices - they tend to be narrower and more pointed on FCF/FCA (HY/SY) birds, but may include contrastingly dark and fresh central rectrices on some FCA (SY) individuals, while DCB/DCA (AHY/ASY) birds have somewhat broader rectrices that typically show only moderate wear by spring.

Species account prepared by McGill Bird Observatory (2016). Last updated by Marcel Gahbauer (Mar 2022)

The molt categories displayed below may be filtered by month.

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Click on any image below to bring up the side-by-side comparison tool.

Individuals not in molt

FCJ - (HY: July - September)
Crown and breast finely streaked
No images available yet
FCF - (HY: July - December; SY January - April)
Rectrices all narrow and pointed, or with contrastingly fresh and broad central rectrices; greater coverts and tertials slightly darker and fresher than primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries
U
Thumbnail - MG2-2650-35555-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1820.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2650-35555-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1822.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2650-35555-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1821.jpg
FCA - (SY: April - September)
Rectrices all narrow and pointed, or with contrastingly fresh and broad central rectrices; one to two generations of greater coverts contrastingly dark relative to brownish and relatively worn secondaries and primary coverts
U
Thumbnail - MG2-2580-26750-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1823.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2580-26750-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1825.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2580-26750-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1824.jpg
DCB - (AHY: July - December; ASY January - April)
Rectrices uniformly broad and rounded; wing largely uniform in colour and wear, with secondaries and primary coverts only slightly lighter than greater coverts
U
Thumbnail - MG2-2650-35580-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1814.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2650-35580-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1816.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2650-35580-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1815.jpg
DCA - (ASY: April - September)
Rectrices uniformly broad and rounded; wing largely uniform in colour and wear, with secondaries and primary coverts only slightly lighter than greater coverts
U
Thumbnail - MG2-9900-00001-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1817.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-9900-00001-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1819.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-9900-00001-Spizella_pallida_AOU_7_52-1818.jpg

Individuals in active molt

FPJ - (HY: July - September)
Crown and breast finely streaked; some natal down remaining
No images available yet
FPF - (HY: July - December)
Similar to FCF; median and greater coverts and often also tertials and central rectrices being replaced
No images available yet
FPA - (SY: March - May)
Similar to FCF; head feathers, and sometimes inner greater coverts, tertials, and/or central rectrices being replaced
No images available yet
SPB - (SY: July - September)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained rectrices or outer primaries and primary coverts distinctly juvenile (pale brown and very worn)
No images available yet
DPB - (AHY: July - September)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained rectrices or outer primaries and primary coverts either distinctly adult (relatively dark, less worn, somewhat broad and rounded) or intermediate
No images available yet
DPA - (ASY: March - May)
Similar to DCB; head feathers, and sometimes inner greater coverts, tertials, and/or central rectrices being replaced
No images available yet

Applicable unknown plumage/age classes

Molt classes Age Months Key traits
M-FPF / UPU (FPF, SPB, DPB) U July - September Undergoing preformative or prebasic molt, but cycle is not reliably distinguishable
M-FCF / UCU (FCF, SCB, DCB) U/AHY July - April In formative or basic plumage (molt completed), but cycle is not reliably distinguishable
M-FPA / UPA (FPA, DPA) AHY March - May Undergoing prealternate molt, but cycle is not reliably distinguishable
M-FCA / UCA (FCA, DCA) AHY April - September In alternate plumage (molt completed), but cycle is not reliably distinguishable