The Snow Bunting is a small songbird that breeds in extreme climates. These gregarious birds live in cold, open habitats, frequently flying from spot to spot and showing off their snow-white wing and tail feathers.
Snow Bunting in winter
Snow Bunting in flight, coming in to land with wings spread wide
Juvenile Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting (male) breeding plumage
15cm to 17cm
32cm to 38cm
28g to 50g
The Snow Bunting is a distinctive bird, although it may be confused with other buntings, longspurs, and larks that share its habitat.
The Snow Bunting is a relatively large, finch-like songbird with a stocky build and a short conical bill. Their colours vary with seasons, although birdwatchers are most likely to see them in their rusty winter plumage. When seen in flight, these birds have characteristic white wings with black tips and white outer tail feathers.
Males are primarily white in the summer, with black backs and wings. In the winter, their backs become paler, and they develop brownish marks across the upper chest, the sides of the face, and the crown and nape.
Male Snow Bunting in breeding plumage
Female Snow Buntings have similar plumage but have black peppering on the head and a grizzled black and white back. In the winter, females develop more rusty brown plumage on the back, head, and breast. The bill is black during the breeding season in both sexes, changing to a yellow-brown shade in the winter.
Juvenile Snow Buntings seen from July to September are greyish above with paler bellies and a yellowish bill. These dull feathers are soon lost as they moult into their adult plumage.
Female Snow Bunting
The Snow Bunting is a fairly large, heavyset Bunting, slightly larger than a House Sparrow.
Snow Buntings measure 15 to 17 centimetres or 6 to 6 ⅔ inches long.
These stocky birds weigh 28 to 50 grams or 1 to 1¾ ounces.
They have a wingspan of 32 to 38 centimetres or 12½ to 15 inches.
Snow Bunting in flight
Male Snow Buntings produce a pleasant warbled song in flight or while perched. Their calls include whistles, buzzing, and rolling notes.
Snow Buntings feed primarily on seeds, although they will take buds and invertebrates when possible. They find most of their food on the ground but can take seeds from stalks by bending or shaking them.
These birds often feed along agricultural fields in the winter, looking for grain and weed seeds uncovered along roadsides. They also feed along the shoreline of sandy beaches, hunting small invertebrates like amphipods.
Snow Bunting chicks eat insects and other invertebrates delivered by both parents.
Close up of a Snow Bunting in early spring, perched on the ground in the snow
Snow Buntings are adapted to life in cold, open habitats across the Northern Hemisphere. Continue reading to learn where these tough little songbirds live and breed.
Snow Buntings live in open, treeless environments. In the summer, they inhabit tundra with rocky areas for nesting. Their winter habitats are more varied, including beaches, lake shores, sand dunes, stubble in farmlands, grassy areas, and weedy fields.
Snow Buntings have an expansive global range. They breed across the tundras of the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska, through Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Northern Russia to the Bering Sea. Their winter range includes much of temperate North America, Europe, and Asia.
Snow Buntings are primarily terrestrial. They are most at home when walking, running or hopping on snowy, sandy, and rocky ground.
A flock of Snow Buntings in the winter
Snow Bunting abundance varies between seasons and locations. They can be very common in one year but completely absent the next, especially on the southern boundaries of their range.
Unless you live in Alaska or Northern Canada, winter is the best time to see Snow Buntings in North America. These birds are most common in agricultural fields, coastal sand dunes, and other open areas in the upper Great Plains states, the Great Lakes States, and the Northeast.
In Canada, non-breeding Snow Buntings can be seen in similar habitats right across the southern half of the country to Newfoundland in the east.
The only place to see Snow Buntings in the UK summer is a few high mountain peaks in Scotland. However, they are far more common in the winter when non-breeding birds arrive from places like Iceland and Scandinavia.
Snow Buntings can turn up along most of the United Kingdom’s coastline in winter, although the best place to look for these birds is the upper east coast of England and Scotland.
Male Snow Bunting in summer plumage, pictured in high up the Scottish mountains, UK
Snow Buntings have a typical lifespan of about three years, although banding data shows that they can survive nearly nine years.
In the nesting season, Snow Buntings are particularly vulnerable to northern predators like Arctic Fox, Snowy Owl, and Gyr Falcons. Many other birds of prey and small mammalian carnivores will feed on them in the winter.
Snow Buntings are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act in the UK and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in North America.
Snow Buntings are not endangered. They are a Least Concern species on the IUCN Red List.
Close up of a female Snow Bunting in summer plumage
Snow Buntings nest in pretty extreme environments. Continue reading to learn more about their breeding behaviours.
Snow Buntings nest in deep rock cracks where they are protected from storms and predators. They build a cosy nest of grass, moss, and other plant materials and line the cup with insulating fur and feathers to keep the eggs and chicks warm.
Even so, the female must spend virtually all her time in the nest when incubating and relies on her partner to bring her food.
Snow Buntings lay two to eight variably marked eggs with a cream-white to pale blue-green ground colour. Their eggs have an average size of 23 millimetres long and 16 millimetres wide.
Snow Buntings do not mate for life. They are usually monogamous in the nesting season, although males occasionally mate with more than one female.
Snow Bunting nest with eight eggs inside
Snow Buntings are territorial in the breeding season but highly gregarious in the winter. Bird watchers can often enjoy sightings of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of these birds in their favoured habitats.
In the nesting season, male Snow Buntings are highly territorial and will fight with other males. Combat occurs both in the air and on the ground, and they will use their bills and claws against their opponent. Females are also aggressive towards potential female competitors in their territory.
Snow Buntings are not aggressive birds outside of the breeding season, although they may squabble among themselves when flocking.
Snow Buntings sleep in holes and rock cracks in the breeding season and on the ground in winter. They may choose wind-sheltered positions on the coldest nights, although these resilient birds do not huddle for warmth.
Two Snow Buntings fighting in the snow
Most Snow Buntings are migratory, although they are resident in a few parts of their range. Continue reading to learn more about their movements and migratory habits.
Snow Buntings migrate twice each year. Their spring migration takes them to the tundra at high latitudes, where they will find a partner and raise a family.
Males arrive on their breeding grounds about a month before the females when the tundra is still covered in ice and snow because they must secure a desirable nest site if they hope to find a partner.
Snow Buntings head south in the autumn/fall before conditions become too extreme. They do not fly as far as the tropics or subtropics, settling instead for cold and often snowy areas with similar habitat characteristics to their breeding grounds.
Snow Buntings are native to North America. These birds breed in Alaska and Northern Canada and fly south to overwinter in the Lower 48 and Southern Canada.
Snow Buntings are native to the United Kingdom. Most of the population are winter visitors from Iceland and Scandinavia, although small numbers breed in high-lying parts of Scotland.
Snow Buntings are highly migratory, migrating twice each year
Snow Buntings are very difficult to attract unless you live in an area they frequent. In such places, these birds may be attracted by spreading birdseed on the ground.
Snow Buntings do not visit bird feeders. These migratory nomads prefer to feed on the ground in wide-open habitats.
A flock of Snow Buntings is known collectively as a drift. Individual birds are often described as ‘snowflakes’.
Snow Buntings are not in the same family as sparrows. In fact, Snow Buntings are members of the Calcariidae family (Longspurs and Snow Buntings), while sparrows are from the Passeridae and Passerellidae families.
A large member of the bunting family, the Yellowhammer is best known as a farmland bird. The bright yellow head of the male, combined with its high-pitched twittering whistle, makes it stand out against countryside hedgerows and freshly ploughed fields.
Reed buntings are resident birds found throughout much of the UK. They breed at wetlands, nesting in waterside vegetation, but sightings during the rest of the year are increasingly common on farmland and even in back gardens in winter months.
Lapland longspurs, known as Lapland buntings in the UK, breed on Arctic tundras, and head south in search of milder habitats in winter months, settling temporarily across much of the United States, around the coasts of England and Scotland, and throughout Europe.
There are forty five different species of Old World Buntings, which are predominantly European seed eating birds similar to finches and are related to American Sparrows. Of the forty five different species, forty fall within the genus of Emberiza. The corn bunting is generally classed within this genus and is monotypic.
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