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Snow Bunting Life History



Snow Buntings spend the summer in the arctic tundra, nesting in rocky areas and foraging in patches of sedges and other vegetation. In the winter they use open fields, croplands with grain stubble, shorelines, and roadsides.

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Snow Buntings eat grass and flowering-plant seeds as well as insects and spiders. They pick seeds and insects from the ground or leap up from the ground to grab a seed or other prey.

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Nest Placement


Snow Buntings nest in rocky areas and boulder fields. The nest is typically in a hole in a rock, in a crevice between rocks, or in a crevice under a rock. Females put the nest at the back of the hole or crevice, such that it is rarely visible from the outside. In areas where nest sites are limited, instead of nesting among rocks, they nest in barrels, metal cans, boxes, buildings, and construction rubble.

Nest Description

Female Snow Buntings collect moss and grass to create a thick open cup that they line with fine grasses, rootlets, fur, and feathers. Because nest sites are limited, Snow Buntings use old nests, adding new lining to nests from the previous season.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.7 in (1.5-1.8 cm)
Incubation Period:10-15 days
Nestling Period:9-15 days
Egg Description:Creamy white with variable brown spots and scrawls.
Condition at Hatching:Helpless, with long, gray-brown down.
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Ground Forager

Snow Buntings are ground dwellers, walking or running to find seeds and insects. In the spring, they use hard-packed snow to clean their feathers, which results in a wearing of the feather tips to reveal the bright white feathers below. Males arrive on the breeding grounds 3–4 weeks before females to establish a territory. Males fight and chase all territory intruders. They approach intruders with a flight song display, rising into the air in song where they meet. The two birds often grapple with bills and feet as they tumble back to the ground. Males also use the flight song display to attract a female; males fly steeply up and glide back to the ground with their wings held in a "V." Following the flight display, males show prospecting females potential nest sites before they settle into a monogamous pair bond for the breeding season. Males may occasionally mate with another female. In the winter, restless flocks constantly flush along like blowing snow, with members leapfrogging over each other.

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Common Bird in Steep Decline

Snow Buntings are common, but according to Partners in Flight their populations declined 38% between 1970 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates that the global breeding population is 29 million. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on Partners in Flight's Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. Because Snow Buntings breed outside of areas monitored by the North American Breeding Bird survey, estimates of population size come from the Christmas Bird Count. Still these counts do not cover all of the wintering areas they use, so estimates of population size and trends may not be accurate.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A., and A. S. Love (2017). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2017.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

Montgomerie, Robert and Bruce Lyon. (2011). McKay's Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

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Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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