Snow buntings are birds of the north, the far north, the arctic tundra, around the world, North America, Europe and Asia.
In Life Histories of North American Birds Arthur Cleveland Bent described the snow bunting as “the very epitome of an arctic bird, a true creature of the snows.”
A snow bunting is much like a sparrow. It’s a little brown bird, though it’s bigger than any sparrow. A female is a little brown bird. It’s brown streaked with black. But it’s white on the throat, breast, belly and the upper parts of its wings. It also has black on the ends of its wings and its tail.
An adult male snow bunting is a mix of white and black. It’s white on the head, shoulders, the upper part of its wings, its throat, lower back, breast and belly and the outer feathers of its tail. Where it isn’t white a male snow bunting is black. It’s a bird of contrasting colors, of white and black. Living in a land of snow and having so much white in its plumage, the snow bunting has also been called snowbird and snowflake.
The snow bunting is a bird of the finch family. Like finches, and sparrows, it has a short, stout bill and feeds on seeds and insects, which it gets from the ground, of course. Its nest is cup-shaped and woven into a clump of arctic vegetation, on the ground.
Snow buntings feed and sleep on the ground. Where else? In spite of the severe weather of their habitat for half or more of the year, they do not migrate. They live in the north throughout the year. In winter they tunnel into and under the snow to find food. They also rest and sleep under the snow, under a blanket of the white stuff.
Though they don’t migrate, there are winters when snow buntings do fly south. Nobody knows what triggers their southern ventures. But when they do go south they become erratic winter wanderers, without predictable wintering grounds. They have occasionally been seen as far south as Florida and Texas.
When snow buntings are seen south of the tundra they are always in flocks. And they are often on the ground in open fields or beside country roads. When flying they fly low.
Snow buntings are never seen at bird feeders like those common feathered winter birds that visit Indiana and other states of the U.S., dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows. Snowy owls, short-eared and long-eared owls, red and white-winged crossbills are other erratic winter visitors that do not come to bird feeders.
I’ve heard of snow owls seen in northern Indiana this winter, and of red and white-winged crossbills. I assume these birds they have been seen in other states as well.
My daughter has seen snow buntings this winter, twice. Both times she was only about a mile from our home, driving, alone, on her way to work. She works nights and told me about seeing the buntings the next morning.
I’ve driven the road my daughter takes to work, many times since she told me of seeing snow buntings. It’s the road I take to town. But I haven’t seen any snow buntings. Nor have I seen any Lapland longspurs, other birds of the far north that visit us rarely in winter, sometimes with flocks of snow buntings.
The snow bunting is a bird of the arctic tundra. It’s an unpredictable, rare winter visitor to the lower forty-eight states of the U.S. and to the countries of central Europe and to central Asia. It’s a strikingly marked bird, a bird marked with splashes of white like the snow of its habitat. Best of all, to me, a flock of snow buntings has been seen this winter near my home.
— Neil Case may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.