For the Birds Radio Program: Snow Bunting

Original Air Date: Dec. 3, 1986

Laura talks about the lovely little Snowflake, quoting John Burroughs about why it is “ever a voice of good cheer and contentment.” (3:15)

Audio missing


One of the most welcome winter visitors to the Northland is the snowflake bird–more properly called the Snow Bunting.

Snow Buntings are among the hardiest of all land birds–true harbingers of winter. They nest as far up as the northern boundary of Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic, where the Steger North Pole expedition started off from. They come down to Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are about the center of their winter range, every year, but are usually easier to find along the South Shore than the North Shore—their preferred habitat is open country resembling their tundra home, not dense northern forest. They eat weed and grass seeds from the exposed tips of plants on windswept fields—they are often found where farmers have spread manure on snow-covered pastures, and picking at the trash which the wind piles up on lake and stream shores. It’s not unusual on a winter drive through farm country to see flocks of these birds flying up from the roadside like snowflakes. They usually flock with their own kind, but sometimes join flocks of Lapland Longspurs or Horned Larks.

Snow Buntings can readily survive real temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. One ornithologist found that when the temperature plummets to -58 degrees Farenheit, though, a Snow Bunting’s body temperature will start to fall rapidly. But these birds can protect themselves by burrowing under snow to keep warm. They are a major food source for Arctic foxes and tundra hawks like the Peregrine Falcon and Gyrfalcon. When they are frightened, they often dive into the snow for cover.

John Burroughs, a popular naturalist of the late 1800’s, wrote of the Snow Bunting: “The only one of our winter birds that really seems a part of winter, that seems to be born of the whirling snow, and to be happiest when storms drive thickest and coldest, is the Snow Bunting, the real snowbird, with plumage copied from the fields where the drifts hide all but the tops of the tallest weeds, large spaces of pure white touched here and there with black and gray and brown. Its twittring call and chirrup coming out of the white obscurity is the sweetest and happiest of all winter bird sounds. It is like the laughter of children. The fox-hunter hears it on the snowy hills, the farmer hears it when he goes to fodder his cattle from the distant stack, the country schoolboy hears it as he breaks his way through drifts toward the school. It is ever a voice of good cheer and contentment.”

(Recording of a Snow Bunting)

That was John Burroughs, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”