Plectrophenax nivalissnow bunting

Geographic Range

Snow buntings are found in both the nearctic and palearctic regions, including northern Europe, Russia, and Canada from early April to mid-September. After migrating in mid- to late-September, snow buntings can be found in southern Canada and the northern United States. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; "Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis", 1996)


Plectrophenax nivalis is a migratory bird. In the summer breeding season, it makes its home hidden in rocky, bare mountain slopes. During the winter months Plectrophenax nivalis can be found in coastal fields, salt marshes, and agricultural areas. ("Buntings and New World Sparrows Snow Bunting", 1999; "Snow Bunting", 2000)

Physical Description

Snow buntings are most commonly identified by their distinct white wings; in fact it is these wings that lend them the name "snowflakes". While the wings of this species provide a defining characteristic, the two sexes do not always look alike. The male is slightly larger and has mainly black and white coloring. The white is most visible on the underbelly, wings, and facial area. The male's tail is black tipped and the bill and feet are also black. The female snow bunting looks similar to the male; however, what is black on the male becomes a less brilliant grayish brown on the female. The white of the wings is also limited to a smaller patch of the female's inner wing. Despite the differences seen in the breeding months, in winter, male and female snow buntings look alike. Both look like the breeding female with inky black feathers turning a duller shade of grayish ginger brown. The bill also turns a yellowish orange. Yet even with the similarities, the male still exhibits a whiter wing. Throughout the winter, the dull plumage gradually wears away, revealing again the beautiful black and white feathers of a male snow bunting ready to mate.

Snow buntings are 16.51 to 19.05 cm long, weigh about 40 g and have wingspans of 30.48 to 33.02 cm. ("Buntings and New World Sparrows Snow Bunting", 1999; "Snow Bunting", 2000; Grzimek, 1973)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Average mass
    40 g
    1.41 oz
  • Average mass
    41.8 g
    1.47 oz
  • Range length
    16.51 to 19.05 cm
    6.50 to 7.50 in
  • Range wingspan
    30.48 to 33.02 cm
    12.00 to 13.00 in


Snow buntings are generally considered to be monogamous. While this is true, there is extreme competition between the males. The more experienced males will return to the summer breeding grounds approximately three to six weeks before the females arrive. It is during this time that they claim their territory and aggressively defend it. It is also likely that the males return to the same territory year after year. Once the females arrive, the male snow buntings attracts them with their warbled song that many describe as finch-like. When a female approaches, the male dives and pursues her. The chase ends with mating. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

Snow buntings breed farther north than any other known land bird. The breeding season begins in late May, after the female snow buntings arrive. They build their nests with grass and moss and line them with feathers and fur. In hopes of avoiding predation, these birds hide their nests in the rocky terrain.

Snow buntings usually lay four to six eggs each season. The eggs are white with a ring of reddish brown spots around the largest end. The incubation period ranges from four to ten days and during this time the males feed the nestbound females. In the extreme cold, the eggs would not hatch if they did not have the mother's constant warmth. The chicks fledge in ten to fifteen days.

It is commonly said that snow buntings raise only one brood of four to six young a year. While this is predominately the case, studies by D. Nethersole Thompson showed that nine out of nineteen pairs raised a second brood. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Grzimek, 1973; Malkins, 2003; "Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis", 1996; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

  • Breeding interval
    Snow buntings generally breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season begins in late May, after the female snow buntings arrive.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    10-14 days
  • Average time to hatching
    12 days
  • Average fledging age
    10-15 days

The incubation period for snow buntings ranges from four to ten days and during this time the males feed the nestbound females. In the extreme cold, the eggs would not hatch if they did not have the mother's constant warmth. The nestling period of snow buntings usually lasts ten to fifteen days. During this time the parents feed their nestlings almost exclusively arthropods. Since snow buntings are social birds and travel in flocks it is assumed that the young birds join the parental flock after fledging. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female


Little is known about the lifespan/longevity of snow buntings.


Snow buntings are a social species. They migrate in large flocks which appear to be in constant motion, because birds in the back fly over the birds in front, creating a constant cycle. In these flocks there is a definite hierarchy: adult birds are dominant over first winter birds and males over females. In winter, the flocks usually contain only snow buntings. However, in other seasons these birds associate with pipits (genus Anthus), horned larks (Eremophila alpestris), and Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus).

In order for snow buntings to withstand temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit, they burrow deep into the snow to stay warm. Snow buntings also enjoy bathing in the snow. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Jennings, 2001; "Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)", 2003)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

The call of the snow bunting is used in mating. The male attracts his mate with a warbled song, which is usually delivered while he is sitting or in circular flight. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Grzimek, 1973)

Food Habits

Snow buntings are ground feeders that live primarily on seeds, leaf buds, and insects. Young snow buntings are fed exclusively arthropods, including both insects and arachnids. After migrating south, snow buntings that nest along the sea coast add crustaceans to their diets. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


The primary predators of snow buntings are arctic foxes and snowy owls. In order to protect themselves, snow buntings hide their nests amongst the rocky terrain. Their white wings also help to camouflage the birds against their snowy habitat. (Malkins, 2003)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Snow buntings impact their ecosystem the most through the food chain. They eat arthropods, seeds, and leaf buds. Since they associate themselves with other field birds, it is likely that all the birds in the environment compete for resources. Snow buntings are also prey to arctic foxes and snowy owls. As an important member of the food chain, snow buntings help maintain the delicate balance of their ecosystems. ("Snow Bunting", 2000; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Little is known of snow buntings's effects on humans. However, they do provide pleasure for many bird watchers. For instance, in Alaska snow buntings are cavity-nesting birds and some people enjoy building birdhouses so they can observe the birds. (Quinlan, 2001)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of Plectrophenax nivalis on humans.

Conservation Status

Snow buntings are protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Ashley Cunningham (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


uses sight to communicate


Birdguides. 1999. "Buntings and New World Sparrows Snow Bunting" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at

North West Norfolk Ringing Group. 2003. "Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at

National Wildlife Federation. 1996. "Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. 2000. "Snow Bunting" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at

Grzimek, B. 1973. Snow Bunting. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. New York: Litton World Trade Corporation.

Jennings, H. 2001. "Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)" (On-line). ELWAS. Accessed April 01, 2004 at

Malkins, C. 2003. "Snow buntings: Living Snowflakes on Shorelines and Grasslands" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at

Perrins, C., A. Middleton. 1985. Old World Buntings. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File Publications.

Quinlan, S. 2001. "Birdhouses for Alaska" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at

Seage, M. 2003. "Snow Bunting" (On-line). Accessed April 01, 2004 at