Snow Bunting

Bird of the Month: Snow Bunting

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Snow Bunting)

PC: Mick Thompson (Snow Bunting)

Plectrophenax nivalis

Length 6-7 in

Wingspan 12-13 in

AOU Band code SNBU

The Snow Bunting (SNBU) is 6-7 in. long with 12-13 in. wingspread. Its genus is the same as a McKay’s Bunting and comes from the Greek plektron meaning a clawlike tool for striking the lyre, referring to the long, straight hind claw and phenax meaning cheat, or false, as the claw only appears to be like a plektron. The species name, nivalis, is Latin for ‘snowy.’

The SNBU summers in the Arctic and winters in southern Canada and northern US. They sometimes have been called "Snowflakes", and flocks of the birds may seem like snowflakes as they swirl through the air and then settle on winter fields. The male in summer is strikingly marked with white on the head and body, and black on the back, wings, and tail. The female’s head is grayish white with dark, brownish gray areas on the back, wings and tail. The bill is black. In the winter, the male and female are similarly colored. They are mostly white with a tawny cap, touches of cinnamon and black on the back and wings, and large white wing patches. In flight, overhead, they seem almost completely white. The SNBU is a ground feeding bird and eats insects, seeds and leaf buds. In Western Washington it is most likely to be found along beaches on the ocean or northern Puget Sound. East of the Cascades, they frequent stubblefields and open benchland and prairies where they feed on the seeds of plants sticking above the snow. Some SNBUs are usually seen on the annual February field trip to Eastern Washington. It loves to bathe in the snow and will burrow into it to keep warm in cold temperatures. The call notes are a clear whistled teer or tee-oo, uttered in flight-a musical rolling whistle. It also has a conversational tut-tut-tut-tew and a harsh bzz.

The SNBU roosts in large flocks on the ground or perches on telephone lines. It nests on the ground in rocky areas and its nest is made of moss, grasses, and earth. The female usually lays 4-7 creamy blue or gray eggs. Incubation lasts 10-16 days, and it is another 10-17 days before the young can fly.