Have you ever wondered about those flocks of brown and white birds which you see along the roadsides?
The ones which move away with flashes of white.
Most people call them snowbirds, but the proper name is Snow Bunting (Plectrophenox nivalis).
These buntings are sparrow-like birds which live mainly on seeds, grass, and grain stubble in the winter.
They always go in flocks while they are with us. A flock will settle in a field and move through it quite deliberately, removing the seeds from all of the weeds in their path which they can reach.
When one bird is startled, they all take off at once—and they rise and fall, and swing left and right, as though they are all attached together.
Snow Buntings do not nest here, or even anywhere near here. They are birds of the High Arctic, making their summer homes well above the tree line, in the rocks and low vegetation of the tundra. They build their nests, find their food, and generally spend all of their time on the ground.
In winter, they come south, Some of them go down into the northern tier of the United States, but they never do go really south as many of our summer birds do.
Can you imagine coming to Rainy River District in the winter to get warm?
The Snow Buntings we see are in their winter plumage, almost all of them (young, old, male, female) the same—quite a bit of white but a good deal of brown on gray on their head, back, and wings. This gives flocks in the distance the illusion of disappearing and then reappearing (it depends on whether you are getting a glimpse of the white or the dark parts of the birds).
We rarely see the male bird in his spring finery—the breeding plumage. He puts on his formal dress—head, neck, and breast pure white, with wings, back, and part of his tail jet black, as well as his beak.
He really is a distinguished-looking fellow in his courting dress.
In the summer, on their home grounds, they consume a lot of insects, larvae and pupae, as well as their regular diet of seeds.
These Snow Buntings are found all around the North Pole. They are common in the winters in Britain, Scandinavia, Russia, and Japan, as well as in North America.
There are quite a few other buntings in North America, although most of them are warm-weather birds. Only four species occur in Canada and of these, only one other can ever be seen here in Rainy River District.
That is the Indigo Bunting, whose name suggests the colour of the male bird—a deep, deep blue.
Our winter bird, the Snow Bunting, very often is found along the roads picking up bits of fine gravel to aid in its digestion. That is where you are most likely to see our winter visitor, the “snowbird.”
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