They head south to spend their winters in Wisconsin! Snow buntings are tough little visitors that live in places like Greenland, Norway, Siberia and Ellesmere Island, the most northern part of Canada, which is farther north than Alaska. Nicknamed “snowflake birds,” they nest in the tundra around the top of the world, the northern most recorded songbird on earth. Right now you can see them as you drive down icy, cold Wisconsin highways where snowplows expose seeds and gravel shoulders. They feed and pick at grit along wind packed prairie fields in flat Western Wisconsin to as far south as Iowa where they have good foraging on seeds such as ragweed!
I never spot them until my car is right on top of them and then they take off low and fast, the flock spiraling, twisting and turning but not going too high. They tend to crouch down and blend in with the ground. They have enough white and a small amount of brown making them impossible to spot. They are restless this time of year and move from place to place. Only the females come down this far south. Soon the males, residing farther north in Canada, will head back to their high arctic breeding grounds. When the males arrive air temps will drop down into the -20s F; females will join them about a month later when things start to warm up.
Snow buntings are forced to nest deep in cracks and crevices of rocks because there are no trees that far north. Those nest sites are secure from predators but the rocks are cold so they will line their nests with fur and feathers to help keep the eggs and chicks warm. The females will stay on the nest for most if not all the incubation time. That forces the males to work hard, bringing the females food almost every 15 minutes. When the male does return to choose a nesting site he will have some brown plumage on his belly. To get rid of the brown the males rub their bellies and heads on snow to wear off the brown tips of their feathers to create the snowy white these birds are known for.
People living around here are ready to head south during our long cold winter but its warm here for these little feathered friends. Wearing miniature down parkas these sparrow sized winter harbingers are covered with down from their ankles to the base of their tiny bills. Another adaptation separates snow buntings from other songbirds their size. Their body temp can dip 30% to 40% lower than other songbirds before hypothermia sets in. They can also adjust their metabolism to quickly turn food into insulating body fat. Like our ruffed grouse they bury themselves in snowdrifts when the weather turns really cold, using snow for insulation and to prevent wind chill. They will be heading north in March so look for them quickly because, like our winter snow, soon they will be gone.
Jim Bennett is an outdoorsman who lives and worked in the St. Croix River Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org