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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Whether snow or no, buntings well worth the wait

Minnesota is home to two species of bunting. One is a tropical bird that migrates north to our state in the springtime to breed and nest. The other is an arctic bird that migrates south to Minnesota to spend the winter. And while sharing similar names, each of these species of bird is vastly different from one another -- in appearance, distribution, and, as it turns out, taxonomically as well. Each bird belongs to entirely different families.

Indigo buntings are often confused with eastern bluebirds. Belonging to the family Cardinalidae and thus related to rose-breasted grosbeaks and northern cardinals, the all-blue male indigo bunting, sometimes sporting blackish wings, are understandably very striking birds and similar looking to eastern bluebirds.  Their conical beaks are perfect for feeding on insects and seeds alike. At just 5½ inches long, if it wasn’t for the male indigo bunting’s song and stunning blue color, the species would probably go relatively unnoticed.

Found throughout the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada during the breeding season, indigo buntings migrate as far south as northern South America for the winter months, but some birds will occasionally spend the entire year in southern Florida. Most, however, migrate north every spring to breed, nest, and raise their young.

Preferred indigo bunting habitat is remarkably similar to the kind of habitat that surrounds us here in much of northern Minnesota: dense thickets, tall nearby trees near forest edges, open brushy fields, farm country, wooded roadways, and forest openings. Why I don’t see more of these wonderful blue birds is interesting to me given this information, so there must be something missing (or perhaps present) that indigo buntings don’t necessarily like.

And here’s an interesting indigo fact: somewhat like the blue jay, the brilliant blue feathers of the indigo bunting that we see are not really blue after all. Though difficult to understand, indigo bunting feathers are actually black in color. For if not for the diffraction of light through an indigo bunting’s feathers, we would observe black instead of the blue we do!

As such, the indigo bunting is as gorgeous a bird as they come here in the Northland. And while other birds are bluish, too -- eastern bluebirds, white-breasted nuthatches, and blue jays -- no other blue-colored bird sings as persistently and as exquisitely, nor are there any other birds-of-blue as stunning a blue, as the indigo bunting.

And yet . . . our other “bunting” (though not as brilliantly plumaged) is an unrelated though as adequately named a bunting as its indigo counterpart is -- certainly just as endearing a bird as the indigo bunting -- is our own snow bunting.

Snow buntings, or snowbirds as they are also affectionately called, are seven-inch long birds with 14” wingspans that occur throughout the polar regions of North America, including Greenland, Iceland, northern Russia, and Scandinavia. These birds, once belonging to the same family that towhees, sparrows, and juncos are a part of (Emberizidae), now belong to a different family altogether -- along with longspurs -- Calcariidae.

And although snow buntings are easy to identify, they are often misidentified because they only occur in Minnesota 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 indigo buntings are in our backyard summertime feeding stations. In fact, snow buntings sing, feed, and fly about regardless of how severe the conditions are during Minnesota’s long and harsh winters.

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, high protein 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.

Indeed, whether it’s a flock of feathered “snowflake” or “blizzard” buntings that take flight in  unison, rising to the sky, and rolling across the landscape like wind-whipped singing snow devils in the bluster of Minnesota’s wintertime; or the startling view of brilliant blue and the sweet song of the indigo, both buntings -- snow and indigo -- though belonging to very different families and occupying very different habitats, are buntings by shared common name nevertheless as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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