Species Accounts
Richard Gregson
PhD MPhil CBiol FRSB
– West Island Wildlife –

Snow Buntings
(Plectrophenax nivalis)

Introduction: I have been sharing a few photographs and some very basic information daily for almost a year now about assorted species of wildlife and plants that can be found in the leafy western suburbs of Montreal. There’s a link on the right that will take you to a site devoted to my “1000 Species project” if you’d like to know more. As we begin a new year – this should be appearing around New Year Day 2021 – I felt it would be interesting occasionally to try to take a few seasonal animals/plants and write up hopefully entertaining and interesting accounts to put more flesh on the bones. I know many people find wildlife fascinating and welcome easy ways to find out more … let’s see how this goes. I am not committing to one-a-week but I’ll aim for something like that depending on what I find and what people are asking questions about. I’ll talk about the science, of course, but also throw in cultural associations where relevant and maybe even some literary or artistic things too.

And so …

It’s the start of a new year, in Montreal, with a frozen river nearby, cold weather and deep snow on the horizon. What more seasonal creature to start off with than the small bird that goes by the name of Snow Bunting.

Considering the yards and yards of good, bad and often indifferent poetry about Robins and Owls and the like I was surprised and a little disappointed to have only found one, solitary Ode to a Snow Bunting. A sadly neglected little bird by the world’s writers it would seem.

At this division in the road where day darkens the sleigh has started . . .
Behind the stopping place a snow bunting is crying and singing.
Over the snow where dusk gathers it is crying and singing.
On the twig of a leafless tree, ah it is burning, a single song, a single life.
Tatsuji Miyoshi (1900-1964)

Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax naval) are small, sparrow-like birds that arrive in southern Canada as winter starts to take a grip. They are with us in flocks of from a dozen to sometimes hundreds of birds, flying up and around, almost never pausing except to take small pieces of food such as seeds that they happen upon. They are one of my personal favourite bird species and a winter without a sight of them is rather sad. I always make a point of seeking them out. This year, I am happy to say that I have already encountered a small flock – brief but satisfying. Winter can now begin.

The sole problem with Snow Bunting enjoyment is that they spend their breeding period way up in the high Arctic and for them, a winter spent on the flatlands around Montreal is like basking in summer warmth for us. To see them hereabouts wait for late December and into January and February and look on flat, open countryside. On the West Island that might be the fields in Cap-St-Jacques nature park or the fields of the Macdonald Campus farm just south of Highway 40. A little bit further afield, the most reliable sites are the flatlands south of the village of St-Clet about 20 minutes drive to the west; especially along the very exposed Montée Chénier.

To the right is a map of their seasonal distribution:

Typical Snow Bunting winter territory near the West Island is mostly like this – these are the sort of places to search:

The link below will play you the song of the Snow Bunting – sadly this is the song on the breeding grounds, when down here they mostly just twitter.

Not surprisingly as the birds are with us in the winter we don’t see them in their full breeding plumage which is a beautifully demarcated white and black. In late winter the males begin to change their colours by rubbing their plumage on the snow, wearing off feather tips to reveal their striking breeding plumage.

Firstly, these are Snow Buntings as we see them –

While this second picture is a Snow Bunting in full summer breeding plumage. I saw this particular one on a small island off the western coast of Iceland –

These birds are Arctic specialists, with a circumpolar Arctic breeding range throughout the northern hemisphere. There are small isolated populations on a few high mountain tops south of the Arctic region, including the Cairngorms in central Scotland and the Saint Elias Mountains on the southern Alaska-Yukon border, as well as the Cape Breton Highlands. The snow bunting is the most northerly recorded passerine in the world.

Studies have shown that they migrate at night. They are able to detect the geomagnetic field of the earth and they use it to guide themselves to their breeding and overwintering territories. Remarkably, their orientation during migration is quite independent of any type of visual cue – in other words, they do not need to look where they are going.

From the fall to the spring when they are heading or located in our direction they eat a variety of plants left standing such as knotweed, ragweed, amaranth, goosefoot, aster, and goldenrod as well as grass seeds. They can forage in the snow to seek and find seeds from lower stems. During the summer their diet includes seeds of crowberry, bilberry, bistort, dock, poppy, purple saxifrage and invertebrates such as butterflies, true bugs, flies, wasps and spiders. The nestlings are fed exclusively on invertebrates. Snow buntings also prey on basking spiders by throwing rocks around and less regularly they will try to catch invertebrates in flight.

As we have all noticed, there are major changes being felt in our climate. An entry in Wikipedia for the species notes that “Several index suggest that climate change could potentially have an important impact in the snow buntings populations. The Arctic oscillation index (AO) is a regional climate index that helps to predict ecological processes. In the Arctic, when the AO index is in a positive phase there are higher winter temperatures and precipitations, there are earlier and warmer springs and in the summer it is cloudy, humid and there are lower temperatures. Usually the AO index tends to oscillate from a positive to a negative phase, but during the last past 40 years, the AO index has remained in the positive phase. Studies have shown that warmer springs trigger an early breeding behavior in the snow buntings that mismatches the peak of their food sources, leading to a lower success rate of the hatchlings. Even more, the higher temperatures will bring to the Arctic other species that will compete with the snow bunting”

To learn more about the potential effects of climate change on the species, visit this link.

According to the American Bird Conservancy while most of the Snow Bunting’s breeding habitats are far from human activities, Christmas Bird Count data show a 64-percent decline in North American populations over the past 40 years. Another threat to the Snow Bunting is pesticide use, since this bird often feeds in agricultural fields during the winter.

Finally, some more photographs of birds seen in winter on or near the West Island.:

… and finally a tale

From Laura Erikson’s “For the Birds”radio programme 1995

People were becoming philosophical as we drove out of Two Harbors and again found the little flock of Snow Buntings. These tundra snowflakes had flown all the way from the Arctic, and we marveled at their tenacity. What had induced them to come here? Had their ancestors handed down folk tales of warmer times in the south, or more abundance? Was it strictly a matter of genetics? No, these birds had gathered in a place where there was little food and no warmth. But suddenly, at the end of this bleak bus trip, we made a breakthrough discovery about the mystery of migration, having a flash of insight about the real reason that Snow Buntings fly south. They migrate in search of neither food nor warmth, but rather, of the Great White Snow Bunting of the south.

And this day was apparently as bleak for this group of buntings as it was for us. For the birds we saw in that flock on Highway 61 in Two Harbors had been misled. There they were, fluttering all about around a great white bird. Unfortunately, what they had found at the end of their arduous journey was not the great White Snow Bunting of the South, but an enormous plastic statue of– a chicken.