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Snow BuntingSnow Bunting
Although temperatures in the high Arctic still range as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, and most food resources are covered with snow, male Snow Buntings are the first migrants to return to their breeding grounds in early April.

The preferred nest site of Snow Buntings is a crevice or cavity among exposed rocks or boulders on the tundra. Competition for sites is intense, and males-especially older, more experienced males-arrive three to six weeks ahead of females to claim suitable territories. They defend these territories and attract mates with finchlike warbled songs heard only on the breeding range. Nests built of moss and grass and lined with feathers and fur are hidden deep within rock piles or under boulders to avoid discovery by predators. Males feed nest-bound incubating females so that the eggs may be kept constantly warm in these cool shaded nest sites. The young are fed a diet of insects and arachnids.

Snow Buntings breed throughout the tundra regions in the northern hemisphere. They range across northern Russia and Scandinavia, and in North America, across the Canadian high Arctic from the coastal lowlands of Greenland to Alaska and as far south as the southern limits of permafrost, and in the alpine tundra of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. In mid to late September flocks begin to migrate south, arriving in the northern parts of the winter range about the third week of October and the southern areas about a month later. They occur irregularly in winter in open habitats from the southern edge of the breeding range south as far as northern Washington, the Great Plains, throughout the agricultural areas of the eastern United States as far south as the Delmarva Peninsula, and occasionally farther. Typical winter habitat is open areas and agricultural fields, where grass and weed seeds can be found, and along shorelines, where crustaceans are added to the diet.
Snow Bunting Range Map

Where wintering Snow Buntings are common, large pure flocks are found; otherwise, they commonly associate with other field birds such as pipits, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs. Flocks seem to be constantly in motion, with birds from the back of the flock flying over the front, so that the flock appears to roll across fields, with much squabbling among individuals. Snow Buntings spend the night in the open in shallow depressions, occasionally receiving a cover of snow.

Description: Snow Buntings are unmistakable medium sized sparrows (6.5 to 7.5 inches in length), with white underparts and striking black-and-white wings. The slightly larger males are entirely black and white in breeding plumage with a white head and nape. The back and rump are black; the rump is mottled with white. Wings are mostly white with the primary feathers forming large black wingtips, and there is a black spot at the wrist. The tail is black with black-tipped white outer tail feathers. The bill and feet are black.

The summer female looks much like the male, except that the black areas of the body are duller and grayish brown rather than pure black and streaked with white, and the crown and ear coverts are buffy with black streaks. The white of the wings is reduced to a patch on the inner wing.

In winter, both male and female Snow Buntings resemble the breeding female. White areas are washed with pale brown, especially about the crown, sides of the head, and breast. The black feathers of the back are edged with brown and the bill becomes yellowish orange. As with breeding plumage, males show much more white in the wings. The rusty brown feather edges of the winter plumage gradually wear away to reveal the breeding plumage.

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