Thursday, November 5, 2009

Snow Bunting

Nature Watch

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

With the amount of snow we have seen in October, it seems only appropriate that the snow buntings have returned for their winter stay. We often see buntings darting away from the roadsides, similar to the juncos, but usually in larger flocks of up to 80 birds. With their white and tan colors, they blur in a flight that reminds us of a swirling snowstorm. These birds are of the Arctic, but we are fortunate to view them during our winters as they travel south.

Imagine flying south to winter in the north woods. While most migrating birds enjoy the southern United States or Central or South America, the snow bunting inhabits most of the northern parts of the United States and Canada. Buntings migrate this short distance to open habitats such as weedy or grassy fields, prairies, low mountains, sandy coastal areas, or sometimes cut-over farmland. Buntings are ground-feeders that feed on grass and other plant seeds from late fall to early spring, and seeds, buds, and insects in their breeding Arctic habitat.

As our winter transitions to spring, just like much of the bird world, the males use their coloration to attract the ladies. However, the snow bunting only has one molt each year, without the alternate plumage that we see on other birds such as the American goldfinch. After the summer molt, the male has the same white underside, brown patches on its face, with a brown and black striped back. Under their colored feather tips, the back feathers are black, and the body feathers are white. To prepare for spring, the male rubs off the brown feather tips in the snow so that he is a showy black and white by April.

These winter bunting visitors will be with us until April, when the males return to their high Arctic breeding grounds. The males move back to the tundra four to six weeks earlier than the females because of the fierce competition for territory. Their chosen nesting site – rock crevices – is a limited available habitat, so competition for the higher-quality nest sites is intense. Temperatures can still be down to -22 Fahrenheit, and food can be buried under snow, making the struggle to survive even greater. Snow buntings nesting choice provides benefits and disadvantages alike. In narrow rock cracks, the buntings have lower rates of nest predation, but it is also a very cold micro-climate for the young birds. To protect the eggs, buntings use a nest lining of feathers and fur to keep eggs and nestlings warm. Additionally, the females remain in the nest during incubation, to be fed continuously by the males. This extra parental care allows for a shorter incubation period and a higher reproductive success rate.

For those not familiar with this winter guest, it is worth pulling out the bird field guide to learn more about the appearance of this bird. When trying to view them in the area, look for those open habitats, mostly in what we would consider our agricultural areas. Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars along to enjoy this bird wonder!

For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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