Photo: Glenn Bartley/Vireo

Snow Bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis

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.
Conservation status Common and widespread, numbers probably stable. Most of breeding range is remote from effects of human activity.
Family Longspurs and Snow Buntings
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.
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.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, breeding
  • adult female, breeding
  • immature female (1st winter)
  • adult male, nonbreeding
Feeding Behavior

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


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.

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.


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.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

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

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Migration

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

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Clear whistle or soft buzzy note. Song a sweet warble.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.