Minnesota Profile: Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
When snow covers the ground, look for this Arctic songbird. About the size of a sparrow (6 to 7 inches long), this whitish bird sports a tawny cap and brown streaks on back and sides. In flight, it is easily identified by flashing white on its black wings.
Snow buntings breed in the high-Arctic tundra, farther north than any other land bird. After cold kills grasses and sedges, they fly south to find food. They winter in open areas, such as fields and beaches, along the East Coast and in the central plains of the United States and Canada. Males migrate north in early April, about a month before females do.
Snow buntings are commonly seen in fields of grass or grain stubble in western and southwestern Minnesota. After heavy snows, they feed on seeds along roadsides. In the Arctic they prefer to nest and feed in areas of tundra interspersed with rocky patches.
Snow buntings feed and roost on the ground; they rarely perch in trees. They roost along roadsides and in plowed fields near tufts of grass, stones, or clods of dirt, where wind and sun have blown or melted away snow. When temperatures get very cold (perhaps minus 30 F), the birds flock up and burrow into loose snow. They form large flocks, sometimes with a few horned larks and Lapland longspurs mixed in. The flocking birds stay close together and fly near the ground.
From fall to spring, snow buntings exist on a diet of seeds. During breeding season, they also eat beetles, true bugs, flies, spiders, and other invertebrates.
Snow buntings tuck their mossy nests into cracks and cavities in rocks, out of reach of foxes, owls, and other predators. Each female lays a clutch of four to seven eggs. The male feeds her while she incubates the eggs. Both adults feed the young, bringing them almost exclusively insects. After fledging, juvenile birds form migratory flocks.
Studies have shown that snow bunting numbers in the Arctic increase with an increase in human activity, since they typically nest near human habitations. There are few threats to their habitat.
Don Nelson, DNR environmental assessment ecologist