Enter snowbirds, exit snow buntings in March
It won’t be long as droves of snowbirds begin arriving here in the Northland, another snowbird will likely be long gone. Indeed, the human snowbirds that annually return to their lake homes and summertime cabins will be following in the wake of northward bound snow buntings that have happily spent their entire winter right here in balmy Minnesota.
The charming snow bunting, as poet Elinor Benedict observed in her poem “A Wise Man’s Gift of Birds”, wrote of the time her husband pointed out a flock of snow buntings to her, expressing, “. . . thank you for the snow buntings you gave me. Although no watcher of birds, you found them from your favorite chair close to hearth and window, saw them swirl into a field of sand where you’d tipped your boat for winter.”
She had discovered the magic of a flock of snow buntings and evidently delighted in the experience so much that it inspired her to pen a poem. Like so many of us who understand the appeal of these happy-go-lucky birds dazzling us with their white, their black, and their songs as they fly to and fro. . . so, too, did Elinor.
Snow buntings, or snowbirds as they are also called, are circumpolar birds, meaning they occur throughout the polar regions of North America, including Greenland, Iceland, northern Russia, and Scandinavia. They belong to the same family, Emberizidae, that towhees, sparrows, juncos, and longspurs belong to.
It is not difficult to identify snow buntings. Always in flocks of a dozen or more birds, the flashy white wing patches contrasted by the black outer primary wing feathers of male birds are easy to distinguish, especially in flight. By March, the white spring breeding plumage of male buntings is the color of snow, while their black back and wingtips are the color of coal.
A bird of open, desolate, and cold landscapes, snow buntings are as content in these conditions as American robins are on your front yard. In fact, snow buntings sing, feed, and fly about regardless of how severe the conditions are.
During the most brutal winter days of falling snow and frigid wind, snow buntings are frequently the only signs of life in the open countryside. When virtually every other creature has sought refuge, snow buntings seem to relish having everything for themselves.
Some winters we tend to see more buntings than during other winters. Similar to the variable influxes we typically observe in other “winter” birds such as common red polls, pine siskins, purple finches, and the like, snow buntings are often driven to our region of Minnesota when the weather further north turns especially inclement.
Weather aside, it’s generally food, or lack of, that dictates this migration much more so than the weather does. And it is food that keeps them here. Seeds of grasses and weeds sticking above snowdrifts are what snow buntings are after. Farm fields, grasslands, roadside ditches, and rural gardens all contain plenty of weed and grass seeds that snow buntings covet.
Buntings breed throughout the high Arctic. Males arrive before the females; usually in early April to claim and defend territories. Preferred nest sites are amongst boulders and rock piles and the crevices common to such objects. The nests are composed of grasses and mosses and lined with fur and feathers. The male’s beautiful warbled songs attract mates.
Naturally, any animal inhabiting extreme environments had to develop special behaviors and physiological abilities to adapt and survive. The snow bunting is no exception. For example, in order for females to maintain a constant and uninterrupted incubation period, their mates feed them a steady diet of insects and spiders. This way, female buntings don’t have to leave their nests, thus never exposing their eggs to cold temperatures. As such, their eggs are maintained at a steady temperature throughout the entire incubation period.
Being white in color makes sense for animals living in snow-covered environments. Other birds, like snowy owls and ptarmigans, have nearly all-white plumage, too. In the case of snow buntings, the birds are frequent wintertime residents right here in northern Minnesota. And can you imagine? That some birds actually fly south to Minnesota to spend the winter? Hardy birds our snow buntings are!
As Elinor’s poem was so inspired by the sight of a few mere white birds, I, too, am moved whenever I observe a flock of snow buntings. The beautiful snowbirds arrive here every year at a time when most other birds have flown far away for the warmth of tropical forests. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that some birds stay, while others find our winters to be just fine.
The captivating snow bunting, as Elinor so aptly observed as she continued in her poem, “...As quickly as they fell, they rose. They snowed their bodies over waves, showering me with voices as they swept away, destined for a promised land of ice ...And now I come to give you thanks...”
In spite the cold and snow, the inspiring little snow bunting — snowbird — gone now, but returning next fall and winter for us to see and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)