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Snow Bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CALCARIIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Appropriately named, the Snow Bunting is a bird of the high Arctic and snowy winter fields. Even on a warm day, the mostly white plumage of a bunting flock evokes the image of a snowstorm.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.9 in
15 cm
Wingspan
11.8 in
30 cm
Weight
1.1–1.6 oz
31–46 g
Other Names
  • Bruant des neiges (French)

Cool Facts

  • The male Snow Bunting returns to its high Arctic breeding grounds in early April, when temperatures can still dip as low as -30° C (-22° F) and snow still covers most of the ground. The female does not return until four to six weeks later.
  • Early arriving Snow Bunting males set up and defend territories that include good nesting sites. They will still come together in flocks to forage, and usually roost in loose groups of from 30 to 80 birds.
  • The Snow Bunting places its nest deep in cracks or other cavities in rocks. Although such nest sites are relatively secure from predators, rocks are cold. The thick nest lining of fur and feathers helps keep the eggs and nestlings warm, but the female must remain on the nest for most of the incubation period. The male feeds her while she is incubating so that she does not need to leave the nest very often.
  • Although breeding and nonbreeding males look quite different, the Snow Bunting has only one molt each year and no true "Alternate Plumage." After the molt in the late summer the male looks brownish with a brown and black striped back. Underneath the colored feather tips, the back feathers are pure black and the body feathers all are white. The male wears off all of the feather tips by actively rubbing them on snow, and he is immaculate white and jet black by the time breeding begins.

Habitat


Grassland

Breeds on rocky tundra. Winters in open weedy and grassy fields and along shores of lakes and oceans.

Food


Seeds

Weed and grass seeds, insects.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–7 eggs
Egg Description
Creamy white with variable brown spots and scrawls.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with long, gray-brown down.
Nest Description

Open cup of moss and grass, lined with fine grasses, rootlets, and fur and feathers. Placed well back in cavity in rocks, such as cracks.

Nest Placement

Ground

Behavior


Ground Forager

Walks on ground and pecks at food. May jump up to take seeds from taller stems.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Common. Both nesting and wintering habitats currently extensive in North America and not threatened.

Credits

  • Lyon, B., and R. Montgomerie. 1995. Snow Bunting and McKay's Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis and Plectrophenax hyperboreus). In The Birds of North America, No. 198-199 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Range Map Help

Snow Bunting Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

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Snowbird Season. Story and photographs in Living Bird magazine.