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Snow Bunting { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Snow Bunting; Plectrophenax nivalis



Snow Buntings belong to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes { perching birds} and the family Emberizidae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Plectrophenax which derives from the Greek Plektron-a cock's spur + phenax =imposter. The specific name of nivalis indicates of the snow.

In the UK it is placed on the Amber list of conservation concern because of its small breeding populations which are rare and localized. In summer there are around 60 pairs {2007} It is classed as a passage/winter visitor and a resident breeder . In Ireland where it is an uncommon winter visitor from October to March it is placed on the Green List {no current concerns} due to the European population being considered secure. { source BTO}

The European population is estimated at between 680,000 and 1.7 million pairs. The populations vary from country to country here are a few examples.Greenland between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Breeding pairs {BP}, Iceland 50,000-100,000 BP. Norway,100,000-500,000 BP Russia 1,500-15,000 BP and Sweden 20,000-50,000 BP. { source Birdlife}

They breed in Northern Eurasia, north North Africa, winters south to southern Europe,Central Asia and southern USA.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Gealag-an-t-sneachda, the Welsh, Bras yr Eira and the Irish name is Gealog Schneachta.

What are Buntings ?

Buntings look very similar to finches ,but in general buntings are a little slimmer and are longer tailed.The structure of the bill is more constant with a small upper mandible fitting neatly into the deeper broader lower one that has a curiously curved cutting edge. buntings tend in general to have dark tails with white edges,but some such as the Corn Bunting have plainer tails.

They tend to show a variety of head patterns.The males are much more like the females during the winter months, with the patterning obscured by dull feather edges which crumble away in spring to reveal the striking plumages.

Cassell's, ' Book of Birds', 1875, describes the buntings as forming a link between the larks and the finches proper, and constitute a family extremely rich in species. These birds are characterized by their thick bodies, their wings of moderate length and their broad tail feathers. The feet are short and toes long and the hinder toe furnished with a large spur-like nail. The beak which is regarded as a distinguishing feature of this family, is short,conical and pointed and thick at the base,but much compressed towards its tip. The upper mandible is somewhat narrower than the lower, by which it is slightly overlapped, the cutting margins are strongly bowed inwards, and bent down at a sharp angle towards the gape."

" Implanted in the palate of the upper jaw there is, a bony protuberance,which is received into a corresponding cavity in the under jaw. The gullet is enlarged but can hardly be said to form a crop,and here is a muscular gizzard. The buntings are essentially inhabitants of the northern portions of the earth, but they are replaced elsewhere by birds of a similar character."

Here in the UK, we have the following species. Cirl Bunting., Corn Bunting**, Lapland Bunting, Reed Bunting** Yellowhammer or Yellow Bunting**

Here we review the Snow Bunting often referred to as Snow-Flake,and as always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

** Species already reviewed in this series.


This species is about six and a half inches in length and weighs thirty to forty grams. The Adultmale in breeding plumage has the mantle,scapulars,inner secondaries, the terminal half of the primaries, four central tail feathers and the greater part of the next pair black, the outer webs edged with white. Outer feathers are mostly white centered,lower back and rump black {with white edges to the feathers} but the sides are white. The remainder of the plumage is white.

The female has all the black parts of the plumage greyer and with pale edges to the feathers. The head and neck are coloured with a blackish mottling.

After the Autumn moult the feathers of the upper surface , breast,and flanks are bordered with a dull chestnut colour which gradually fades to white during the winter and the ill becomes an orangey-yellow tipped with black.

Meyer, 1846, notes that " All the Buntings in this country {UK} have but one general moult, but the differences between the young and old, and the male and female ,and other gradual changes that annually take place in the adult, by the wearing away of the edges of the feathers,cause a great disparity of appearance among the different individuals."

Snow bunting and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Illustration of the Snow Bunting


General and Historical information

Old names for this bird in the UK,include the Lesser pied mountain finch, the Snow bird from Hudson's Bay, The Tawny Bunting, the Mountain Bunting, the Lorraine Bunting, but by far the prettiest name, in my opinion, { and by which it is almost as well known as the Snow Bunting} is the Smow-Flake.

Seebohm, writes of its habits is his book 'A History of British Birds} 1885, " The flight of the Snow Bunting is peculiar,and is somewhat like that of a butterfly,as if the bird alters its mind every few seconds as to which direction it would take. It can scarcely be called an undulating flight. This bird certainly does not rest its wings every few seconds, but either they are expanded when at rest or they are rested for r so short a time that the plane of the flight is not sufficiently altered to warrant it being called undulating."

" The Snow Bunting is almost entirely a ground feeder,and is consequently continually seen on the ground. These birds run along the snow with the celerity of a Wagtail on a sand bank, but they can hop as easily as a Sparrow, and I have very often seen them do so. The idea that they very seldom, or never perch in trees is a mistake, which has no doubt arisen from the circumstances that on the Steppes, where they delight to winter,and on the Tundra,where they breed, there are no trees. In the Valley of the Petchora we had an abundant opportunity of seeing them in trees"

Lord Lilford, observes, " In the few instances in which we have met with this bird in the Highlands of Inverness-shire, we found it exceedingly tame,running within a few yards of us and feeding on seeds of various grasses which grew by the burn-sides. In one instance the bird was so confiding that I nearly caught it with my cap, but this was no doubt caused by the fact that a Merlin was hunting over the moors at the moment when the Snow-Flake,as this bird is often called, fluttered up at our feet. The call note of this bird is pleasing and musical,and the male has an agreeable song, which I have however, only heard from a caged bird "

Mr.Saxby, speaking of them in Shetland,wrote in the Zoologist-" Seen against a dark hillside or a lowering sky, a flock of these birds present an exceedingly beautiful appearance,and it may then be seen how aptly the term Snow-Flake has been applied to this species. I am acquainted with no more pleasing combination of sight and sound than that afforded when a number of these birds, backed by a dark grey sky,drops as it were in a shower to the ground, to the music of their own sweet tinkling notes"

Courtesy of dianab97330; Standard You Tube license. https;//

Diet of the Snow Bunting

The food of this species during the breeding season consists largely of insects, but at other times many kinds of seed are eaten. John Cordeux { Birds of the Humber District} 1800's states that " The little Snow-Flake will find food and thrive in the severest winters,after all our small feathered friends have been driven out by frost and snow from the cold exposed marshes, feeding on the seeds of various grasses picked from withered bents rising above the carpet of snow,they are nearly always excessively fat."

Adult male in Ireland


Snow bunting -historical notes of the bird in Scotland and the USA

Meyer,1846, " It is probable that Scotland presents greater facilities and enticements than any other country on the southern side of the Arctic circle, the coldness of its climate, the desolate scenery in the wilder parts and its lofty mountains,capped with perpetual snow,represents not very remotely the Arctic regions,in which these birds chiefly delight"

As regards the USA,Mabel Osgood in her book 'Bird craft' 1897, reveals the Snow-Flake is well named,for the Snow-Flake hurried from the north by fierce winds and weather comes to us out of the snow clouds. Travelling in great flocks,which are described as sometimes numbering thousands, they settle down upon the old fields and upland meadows. The birds have been know to breed in the northern States."

" In July 1831 Audubon** found a couple nesting in the White Mountains and Dr.J.A. Allen notes a pair as breeding near Springfield,Mass. The Snow-Flake is very capricious in its visits,as are, in fact, all winter birds along the Connectient shore of the sound. During the snowy winter of 1893-94, not a single flock appeared, though the weather was evenly cld and marked by north easterly storms. "

" On February 15 1891, one of the only days of the season when their was sufficient snow for sleighing,a day with heavy drifting clouds and windy gusts that scattered the loose snow so suddenly that it was driven with the sharpness of sand, I drove for several miles along the road that separates the shore and marshes from cultivation.and was rewarded by seeing Gulls,Meadow Larks,Horned Larks, Red Polls, Snow-Flakes and rarest of all, Lapland Long-spurs,the first time that I had identified them here."

" The Redpolls**and Snow-Flakes were feeding under similar conditions, the Redpolls keeping under the cover of bushes and furrows, while the Snow-Flakes were in the open,and the flock continually arose with the drifting snow and settled again like a part of it,uttering a soft chirp as they shifted"

** These birds have already been reviewed in this series.

Snow Bunting winter

Taken at Whitley Bay Northumberland {England}
Taken at Whitley Bay Northumberland {England} | Source

Keeping wild birds was once a popular past time


Snow Buntings and captivity

In the days before it became illegal to keep wild birds in captivity,it was a popular pastime for many people. Bird catchers made a good living out of their employment and sold them as cage and aviary birds or as food to the markets. As it is a part of our avian history the following paragraphs feature some historical observations.

According to Lord Lilford, in captivity the Snow bunting would eat almost any sort of feed,and generally dies of plethora unless strictly dieted. Butler writes on the subject, " As a cage bird, the Snow Bunting, in spite of Herr Gake's estimate is pretty generally admired,and is frequently exhibited in shows"

And Stevenson stated " In confinement, I have found the Snow Buntings very gentle in disposition and extremely affectionate to one another forming an amiable contrast to the Brambling ** finches. A pair, which were kindly sent to me for my aviary in 1862,by Mr.Fowler, of Ginton,near Lowestoft {SE England}, netted from a very large number at the time frequenting the Corton beach attained very nearly their full summer plumage, their beaks that are yellow in Winter ,assuming a dark leaden tint. Both these birds unfortunately suffered from a disease state of the feet,which were painfully swollen, and the scuttela on their anterior portion of the tarsi and toes were generally enlarged and ragged. With this exception, they lived in an apparently good health till autumn of 1863,when the female wasted away and died, and the male only survived his partner for a matter of a few weeks."

Butler also gives the following advise " It is certain that the Snow Bunting ought not to be restricted to a cage,unless it is a very large one. Half the charm of this beautiful species consists of seeing it fly. Moreover it is only to be expected that a bird accustomed to wander over some of the wildest regions of the earth and sea,should feel stunned and miserable when confined within narrow limits and constantly subjected to inspection in a stuffy room.An outdoor aviary would be the most suitable home for it,and the larger the better"

Swaysland, on the other hand makes the following observation, " As it is a somewhat dull bird, it is not desirable for either cage nor aviary " however, he gave no details and from reading his notes it appears he had no personal experiences of this bird.

** this species already reviewed in this series.

Female-wintering in Maine

Uploaded to Commons by Needsmoneritalin
Uploaded to Commons by Needsmoneritalin | Source

Eggs of the Snow Bunting

Uploaded to Commons via Archaeodontosaurus
Uploaded to Commons via Archaeodontosaurus | Source

Nest ,Eggs and Young Birds

The nesting season for this Bunting is late, most nests being apparently encountered in June and July, although in Iceland it has been known to nest as early as May. It chooses heaps of stones,crevices in rocks or behind boulders,or piles of drift wood in which to build.

The nest is bulky and constructed of dry grass,rootlets,sometimes birch or other twigs,and a little moss . It is lined with down or hair and a quantity of feathers. The eggs 4-6 are deposited by the female and it is she that incubates them for 12-13 days. They tend to vary in size and colouring,the ground colour being a creamy or greyish white,or pale greenish spotted and blotched with chocolate,and occasionally striated with blackish markings.. the shell markings are usually collected towards the extremity of the large end of the egg.

During the incubation period the male is in full song it can be heard both when perched or fluttering in the air,in the manner of a Tree Pipit **, the song is described as a melodious warble

The young birds are a greyish colouring with dark centres to their feathers, but the wings and tail resembling the autumn plumage of the adults.

** This species already reviewed in this series.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, your welcome we learn from each other I have benefited greatly from your articles about American species. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have yet to meet a bunting, but it will happen sooner or later. That's for telling me more about them.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, I hope you do see this species one day they are truly beautiful creatures. Thank you so much too, for your kind comments and all your votes and shares, all of which are truly appreciated. best wishes to you.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      3 years ago from Norfolk

      D.A.L. Another lovely addition to your growing series on birds. Always well researched hub with beautiful images. I have never seen one of these myself, here's hoping I do sometime.

      Well done as always. Voted up, beautiful and interesting. Google+ and tweeted.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, 'Nature is a great wonder' as you so rightly point out. Glad you liked this species. Thank you for kind comments and much appreciated votes.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      So beautiful! I like birds and this one is no exception. You always write about the beauty of life. Nature is a great wonder. Voted up, useful interesting.


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