The aptly-named snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) is a hardy, medium-sized songbird of the high Arctic and snowy winter fields. Sometimes known as the ‘snowflake’, its white plumage and dancing flight give its flocks the appearance of swirling snow flurries (3) (4) (5).
During the breeding season, the adult male snow bunting is largely snowy white, except for a contrasting black back, black wing tips and black central tail feathers (2) (3) (5) (6). The wings also have a black spot on the leading edge (3). The male’s legs and feet are dark grey to black, and the beak is dark, becoming more yellowish-orange in autumn, with a black tip (2) (3). The breeding female is white below, with a more greyish head, mottled upperparts, dark leading edges to the wings, a pale reddish-brown wash on the flanks, and a yellowish-orange beak (2) (3) (5) (6).
Outside of the breeding season, the male and female snow bunting are more similar in appearance, both developing more buffy plumage. The feathers of the head are tipped with brown and those of the back and wings are tipped white or reddish-brown, giving a mottled appearance (2) (3) (5) (6). There is also a faint reddish band across the breast (3) (5). Unusually, although the adult male snow bunting’s breeding and non-breeding plumage look very different, the breeding plumage is not attained through a moult into new feathers. Instead, the coloured tips of the feathers wear off in late winter and spring, revealing the pure black or white bases of the feathers beneath (2) (3). Juvenile snow buntings are distinguished from the adult by a greyer body and head, and a dark brownish-black tail and wings (2) (3) (5).
Four subspecies of snow bunting are recognised: Plectrophenax nivalis nivalis, Plectrophenax nivalis vlasowae, Plectrophenax nivalis townsendi and Plectrophenax nivalis insulae (2). Although it is generally quite a distinctive species, the snow bunting can sometimes be confused with McKay’s bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus), which has purer white plumage. The two species occasionally hybridise (2) (3).
The song of the male snow bunting, given from a perch or in flight, consists of a rapid, musical trilling or warbling. Snow buntings also use a variety of calls, including a soft, rolling, musical rattle, a loud ‘tsweet’, a sharp ‘chi-tik’, and a mournful-sounding ‘teu’ (2) (3) (5).
- Length: c.15 cm (2)
- Wingspan: c.30 cm (3)
- 30 - 46 g (2) (3)