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Blane Klemek: Snow buntings are happy in the worst of winter weather

Flushing together in waves of white, these feathered snowflakes that take flight in unison, rising to the sky, rolling across the landscape like wind-whipped snow devils, could just as well be called “blizzard birds.”

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This snow bunting was spotted in front of the Morris Wetland Management District office a couple days before the blizzard hit! (Flickr photo by Alex Galt/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Midwest Region).

Of the handful of wild birds that annually show up in Minnesota during the coldest months of the year, none are as hardy and handsome as snow buntings, or snowbirds, as they are also called.

These seven-inch long birds with 14-inch wingspans -- that occur throughout the polar regions of North America, including Greenland, Iceland, northern Russia, and Scandinavia -- belong to the same avian family as towhees, sparrows, juncos, and longspurs.

Just a few days ago, while enjoying an early March afternoon drive, spring in the air, a flock of snow buntings flew out of a snow-covered ditch. They momentarily blended into their snowy environment, until the flock gained altitude and became silhouetted against the leafless forest, it was only then that the birds’ white-black plumage revealed their true identity.

Though snow buntings are easy to identify, they are often misidentified, because the only time they occur in Minnesota is during a time of year when fewer people are out and about to actually see them.

Always bunched in tight 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.

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By late winter, the white spring breeding plumage of male buntings is the color of snow, and the 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 in your summertime backyard. In fact, snow buntings sing, feed, and fly about regardless of how severe conditions are. 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 desire.

Snow buntings breed throughout the high Arctic. Male buntings arrive before the females, generally in early April, to claim and defend territories; their beautifully warbled songs help them attract females to mate with. They prefer nest sites within the crevices of boulders and rock piles, where they build modest nests composed of grasses and mosses lined with fur and feathers.

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, spiders, and other invertebrates. This way, female buntings never have to leave the nest, thus never exposing their eggs to cold temperatures. The eggs are maintained at a steady temperature throughout the entire incubation period.

Being mostly white in color makes perfect 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 right at home as wintertime residents in northern Minnesota.

Hormones, brought about by changes in the length of daylight, initiate molting. Male snow buntings take on a more brownish look by late summer.

As the year progresses and the breeding season once again approaches, males begin rubbing the outer dark tips of their body feathers off, revealing the all-white plumage of their undersides and the pure black feathers on their backsides. And while many birds undergo two molts per year, snow buntings molt only once.

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Flushing together in waves of white, these feathered snowflakes that take flight in unison, rising to the sky, rolling across the landscape like wind-whipped snow devils, could just as well be called “blizzard birds.” Their penchant for the Northland’s snow and ice sets these charming birds apart from those others that have long since departed for warmer climes.

At a time of the year when most songbirds are enjoying southern forests and seaside habitats, it’s nice to know that some birds — snow buntings — make Minnesota their winter home, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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A snow bunting at the Windom Wetland Management District in southwestern Minnesota. These beautiful Arctic birds over-winter in Minnesota. Look for large flocks along road sides and open crop fields. (Flickr photo by Kimberly Emerson/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Midwest Region)

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