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Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) | by Brian Carruthers-Dublin-Eire
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Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)


[order] Passeriformes | [family] Emberizidae | [latin] Plectrophenax nivalis | [UK] Snow Bunting | [FR] Bruant des neiges | [DE] Schneeammer | [ES] Escribano Nival | [IT] Zigolo delle nevi | [NL] Sneeuwgors



spanwidth min.: 30 cm

spanwidth max.: 33 cm

size min.: 14 cm

size max.: 16 cm


incubation min.: 12 days

incubation max.: 13 days

fledging min.: 12 days

fledging max.: 14 days

broods 2

eggs min.: 3

eggs max.: 7


Gealóg shneachta


Status: Uncommon winter visitor from October to March.


Conservation Concern: Green-listed in Ireland. The European population is considered to be Secure.


Identification: A typical bunting in size and shape, being slighly larger than a Chaffinch. Has a number of distinctive plumages, making identification of males and females relatively straightforward. In all plumages, males have a much larger white wing-pannel than females.


Adult summer males are unmistakable, having a pure white body with a black beak, wing tips and tail centre. There are very few records of Snow Buntings in this plumage in Ireland, most wintering birds having left before moulting into this plumage.


Adult winter male Snow Buntings are washed beige-brown on the head, back and flanks, while the beak is yellow with a dark tip.


Adult summer females largely resemble summer males, but have an extensive areas of dark brown on the head and breast.


Adult winter female Snow Buntings appear like a darker-brown version of winter males, having much brown on the head, back and tail. Has only a very indistinct white wing patch.


Juvenile Snow Buntings have a dark grey head and back, with an obvious white eyering. The undersides are pale grey.


Similar Species: Other Bunting species.


Call: Flying Snow Buntings frequently give a buzzing “prrrrrt”. The song is unlikely to be heard in Ireland


Diet: Feeds on seeds and other vegetable matter in machair and sand dunes.


Breeding: Snow Bunting does not breed in Ireland. There is a small breeding population in the Grampians in northern Scotland, with the main breeding range in Iceland and Scandinavia.


Wintering: Snow Buntings winter along the coast, mainly in the north and west of Ireland. Seen either singly or in small groups feeding along seashores, in dunes or tilled fields. Also recorded on the exposed tops of mountains, such as the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains.


Where to See: The Belmullet peninsula in County Mayo and sand dunes in north-west Donegal are reasonably reliable sites to see Snow Buntings in Ireland. Rather rare on the east and south coasts of Ireland.



Physical characteristics


Snow Buntings are unmistakable medium sized sparrows, 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.

Across their range, flocks can reach the thousands and are often in the hundreds, although in Washington, flocks are usually much smaller. These flocks move around a lot from place to place, so their winter distribution can be spotty and ever changing. As they move through a field, birds at the back of the flock fly over the rest of the group to move to the front, making it appear that the flock is rolling. Ground-foragers, Snow Buntings are found in flocks outside of the breeding season




Breeding habitat is barren tundra with rock piles, boulder fields, and other rocky outcroppings that are used as nesting sites. In winter, Snow Buntings inhabit a variety of open lands, including short-grass prairie, farmland, beaches, and roadsides.


Other details


Plectrophenax nivalis is a widespread breeder in northernmost Europe, which accounts for less than a quarter of its global breeding range. Its European breeding population is large (>680,000 pairs), and was stable between 1970-1990. Although there were declines in Sweden and Finland during 1990-2000, key populations in Greenland and Norway were stable, and the species probably remained stable overall.




Seeds are part of the Snow Bunting's diet year round, but especially in winter. During summer, they eat more insects and spiders, and the young are fed almost entirely an invertebrate diet. Birds in coastal areas may also eat tiny crustaceans.




This species has a large global range; the total size has not yet been quantified, but the Extent of Occurrence in the Americas alone is estimated to be 3,700,000 km². It has a large global population estimated to be 39,000,000 individuals (Rich et al. 2003). Global population trends have not been quantified, but the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern. [conservation status from]




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.

She incubates 3 to 9 eggs for 10 to 16 days. Rock crevices in this harsh environment can be cold places, and the male feeds the female while she is on the nest so she doesn't often need to leave the nest during incubation. Both parents help feed the young, which leave the nest at 10 to 17 days. The parents continue to feed the young for 8 to 12 days after they leave the nest, although the young start catching some of their own food within 3 to 5 days. Snow Buntings typically only raise one brood a year.

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.




Partially migratory to migratory, many birds wintering far south of circumpolar breeding range; northernmost areas are vacated. In Europe, winters mostly in coastal areas and on inland plains. Numbers vary greatly from year to year, and also fluctuate over long periods. Present in Iceland all year, by far the commonest wintering passerine.

Autumn movement prolonged, September-December, with most passage records October-November. Spring movement northward begins early or mid-February. Leaves southern France February-March; latest record 28 February in Rumania, and rare by March in Hungary. Passage peaks end of February to early or mid-March in Denmark, north-east Germany, and Poland. Reaches southern Norway mid- or late March to April, and northern Norway at beginning of May. In north-east Scotland, spring departure rapid; most birds leave in March, a few still present in 1st half of April; males depart c. 9 days before females on average.

Snow Buntings migrate in small, loose flocks. Males arrive on their Arctic breeding grounds in early April. Females follow in May, and both leave in the fall, arriving in and passing through Washington in mid-October. They winter throughout the open country of the northern United States and temperate Canada.


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Taken on February 14, 2016