Snow Bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis

Donna Dewhurst, FWS
  • EMBERIZINAE
  • Sparrows, Buntings, Towhees, Longspurs
  • Passeriformes
  • Escribano nival
  • Bruant des neiges
Introduction

The Snow Bunting is a small, pale-brown-and-white bird usually found in winter by the ocean, lakes, and rivers shores, grassy fields or roadsides in North America, Alaska and northern Canada. Its breeding plumage is brilliant white and black.

Fun Fact

Male Snow buntings return to their breeding spots in high-latitude arctic areas in early April, when the temperature can reach -30°C and grasses and weeds are usually covered with snow.

Bird Sounds
© Lang Elliot, Nature Sound Studio
Vocalization

During the non-breeding season, snow buntings have a wide variety of relatively quiet calls.

Appearance Description

We usually see snow buntings in the winter, as small, pale-brown-and-white birds foraging on the ground, or showing black, white, and brown patches in flight. In breeding season, they sport striking black and white contrasting plumage.

Range Map
Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

Circumpolar breeding distribution. In North America, breeds along shores in Alaska and northern Canada and at high elevations in Alaska. Winters throughout southern Canada and the northern United States (and at similar latitudes in Europe and Asia).

Habitat

In winter, ocean, lakes, and rivers shores; grassy fields and grain stubbles; roadsides after a heavy snow. In breeding season, rocky tundra near grassy tundra with sedges and lichens.

Feeding

Feeds on the seeds of grasses and weeds from late fall to early spring, and seeds, buds, and invertebrates from late spring to early fall. Forages by pecking at food on the ground; also darts around rocks to catch basking spiders during the breeding season and gathers seeds from weed stems in the snow during winter.

Reproduction

Returns to the tundra very early in the spring due to fierce competition for territory. Unlike other arctic songbirds, Snow Buntings construct their nests in rock cavities, making them less susceptible to predation but more vulnerable to the cold. Produces only one brood per season, and the clutch size range is 2-7 eggs. To protect the eggs, females remain in the nest during the incubation period and receive food from their mates.

Migration
  • 29 million
  • 14.5 million
  • 40 million 40 years ago
  • 64 percent in 40 years
Population Status Trends
Conservation Issues
  • Threats: Global warming in the breeding areas of this species causes earlier thawing of the tundra and allows more woody plants to grow. Snow Buntings prefer relatively open sites, and these habitats are declining. In addition, global warming allows more predators (both mammals and birds) to survive and prey on Snow Bunting nests.

  • Outlook: The Snow Bunting is by no means the most specialized of the tundra breeders, and it is therefore likely to survive in the face of global warming, but in diminished numbers. Its decline is an indication of the severe threats to the more specialized tundra breeders.
What You Can Do
  • Help Halt Global Warming
    Back strong federal, state, and local legislation to cap greenhouse emissions, and spur alternative energy sources. Conserve energy at home and at work (http://www.audubon.org/globalWarming/BePartSolution.php).

  • Patrol Beaches
    Join beach watches to look for oiled birds or other signs of coastal pollution. Lobby local, state, and federal officials to maintain wildlife-friendly beaches and clean coastal waters.
More Information
Natural History References

Kaufman, Kenn. Guía de campo a las aves de Norteamérica. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Lyon, B. and R. Montgomerie (1995). Snow Bunting and McKay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalisand Plectrophenax hyperboreus). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences and Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists’ Union. Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online database: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA/account/Snow_Bunting

Conservation Status References

Kaufman, Kenn. Guía de campo a las aves de Norteamérica. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Lyon, B. and R. Montgomerie (1995). Snow Bunting and McKay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalisand Plectrophenax hyperboreus). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences and Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists’ Union. Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online database: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA/account/Snow_Bunting