Snow BuntingPlectrophenax nivalis

adult male, breeding
Glenn Bartley/VIREO
adult female, breeding
Laure W. Neish/VIREO
immature female (1st winter)
Rob Curtis/VIREO
adult male, nonbreeding
Garth McElroy/VIREO

Description

They sometimes have been called "Snowflakes," and flocks of Snow Buntings may seem like snowflakes as they swirl through the air and then settle on winter fields. South of the Arctic these are strictly winter birds, arriving in late fall, generally departing at the first signs of spring. In summer they retire to barren northern tundra, with some breeding on the northernmost islands of Canada and the mountains of Greenland. In some high Arctic communities, Snow Buntings nest in birdhouses put out for them.

Habitat

Prairies, fields, dunes, shores. In summer, tundra. Breeds on northern tundra, mainly in areas with rocky outcrops, boulder fields, cliffs, or rocky beaches, generally avoiding unbroken wet tundra. Winters in various kinds of open country, including shortgrass prairie, farmland, beaches, lake shores.

Feeding Diet

Mostly seeds and insects. Seeds of grasses, weeds, and sedges make up a major part of diet at most seasons, especially in winter; may also consume buds and leaves in spring. Also eats many insects in summer, including crane flies, other flies, beetles, caterpillars, true bugs, and others, plus some spiders. Young are fed mostly on insects. In coastal areas, may eat tiny crustaceans and other marine life.

Feeding Behavior

Forages while walking and running on the ground. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks.

Nesting

Males arrive on breeding grounds 3-6 weeks before females, to stake out territories containing suitable nest sites. In territorial and courtship display, male flies up 20-30', then glides down while singing. In courtship on ground, male spreads wings and tail, turns his back to female to show off contrasting pattern, and makes short runs away from her. Nest site is in some protected cavity, as in a deep fissure among rocks; sometimes under manmade debris or in hole in ground. Nest (built by female) is a bulky cup of grass and moss, lined with fine grass, rootlets, plant down, and especially with feathers or hair. Eggs: 4-7, sometimes 2-9. Whitish to pale blue-green, marked with brown and black. Incubation is by female, 10-16 days. In some parts of range, male feeds female on nest throughout incubation period, allowing her to spend more time on eggs -- important in cold northern climate. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10-17 days after hatching. 1 brood per year.

Eggs

4-7, sometimes 2-9. Whitish to pale blue-green, marked with brown and black. Incubation is by female, 10-16 days. In some parts of range, male feeds female on nest throughout incubation period, allowing her to spend more time on eggs -- important in cold northern climate. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10-17 days after hatching. 1 brood per year.

Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10-17 days after hatching. 1 brood per year.

Conservation

Common and widespread, numbers probably stable. Most of breeding range is remote from effects of human activity.

Range

Migrates mostly late in fall and early in spring. Strays south of main winter range may be most likely to appear in November.

Listen

winter flock calls #2
songs #1
harsh scold
subsong in winter flock
songs #2
winter flock calls #1

Similar Species

adult, breeding

White Wagtail

One of the most common birds of open country across Europe and Asia, the White Wagtail enters North America only as a scarce and local summer resident of western Alaska. There it seems to favor the vicinity of manmade structures: most of the nests found in Alaska have been in abandoned fishing huts, old gold dredges, empty fuel tanks, or piles of debris on the beach. Birders are likely to spot this wagtail first as it flies past, giving a metallic call, trailing its long tail in undulating flight.

adult male, breeding

McCown's Longspur

An uncommon bird of the high plains, nesting on shortgrass prairies and wintering in dry fields of the Southwest. McCown's Longspurs are most conspicuous in summer, when the males perform flight-song displays, singing as they parachute down with their white tail feathers spread wide. In winter they are often in forbiddingly barren areas, such as plowed fields or dry lake beds, where there are few other birds except for flocks of hardy Horned Larks. Like other longspurs, however, they are attracted to water, and swirling flocks often descend on the margins of ponds.

adult male

McKay's Bunting

Few birders ever get to see this whitest of North American songbirds on its main nesting grounds, remote St. Matthew and Hall Islands in the Bering Sea. During many summers, however, a few McKay's Buntings appear on St. Lawrence Island or the Pribilofs, sites more easily visited. On those islands the bird may interbreed with the local Snow Buntings, as the two species apparently are very closely related.

Vireo

iPad Promo