What are those white birds that flock together in the wintertime, that fly from the fields, the roadsides, and open country, paying no attention whatsoever to the cold and snow and icy wind? How can it be that a bird so small seem so unaffected by Alberta Clippers and the like, yet, go about their day singing merrily on their way from one field to the next feeding on weed seeds and whatnot?
Snow buntings, or snowbirds, as they are also called, are in fact the birds I speak of. These 7-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 family that towhees, sparrows, juncos and longspurs belong to - Emberizidae.
And although 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. 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.
During an Audubon Christmas Bird Count that I once participated in near Warren, Minn., several Januarys ago, snow buntings were the most commonly observed bird. As well, on numerous other occasions on the most brutal winter days, snow buntings were the only signs of life I would see braving the harsh elements. When all other creatures are holed up and waiting out storms, snow buntings seem to relish having the outdoors all to themselves.
Some winters, we tend to see more buntings than we do during other winters. Similar to the variable influxes we typically observe in birds such as common red polls, pine siskins and purple finches, snow buntings often show up in our part of the state when the weather further north turns exceptionally bad.
It's usually the lack of food, not inclement weather, that dictates snow bunting migration. And it's 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 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.
Indeed, the 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 many birds have flown south for the warmth of tropical forests, it's nice to know that some birds - snow buntings - make Minnesota their winter home. Sometimes called snowbird, snowflake or snow-flek, it's not hard to understand what motivated one admirer to write, "But, oh, the snow-flek, the bonny, bonny snow-flek. She is the bird for me."
In the coming wintry days ahead, here's that you find your snow-fleks, treasuring their beauty and grace as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.