Of all the arctic birds that invade Maine every winter, snow buntings have got to be among the cutest. Snow buntings nest on the tundra along the Arctic Circle, where it is barely warm enough in summer, and too frigid in winter. That harsh climate forces them to migrate southward each year as winter approaches. When they reach Maine, they settle into places that look like home.
You might find snow buntings on ocean beaches and lake shores in winter. They can often be seen in fallow farm fields, especially if there is a little bit of stubble exposed through the snow. They adore blueberry barrens, which closely resemble their native tundra, and which are often scoured clear of snow by the wind. I try to make at least one trip to the barrens in Washington County every November, just for the spectacle. I went down to the Columbia barrens last week. They did not disappoint. There were hundreds of snow buntings swarming around.
Snow buntings have few relatives. It is one of only six species in its family worldwide, and only one other family member is occasionally seen in Maine. The Lapland longspur is an uncommon visitor, sometimes seen flocking with snow buntings. Like all species in its family, snow buntings dine primarily on grass seeds and the seeds of flowering plants, with a side helping of small insects and spiders.
Snow buntings have several peculiar — and endearing — characteristics. They are not tree nesters, since there aren’t any trees on the tundra. Instead, they nest in crevices between rocks. Due to the cold, the female lines the nest with as much moss and fur as she can find. Then she sits on the nest to keep it warm until the eggs hatch, while the male brings her meals. In order to secure enough nearby food, males return to the Arctic up to a month before the females, set up their territories, and vigorously defend them from other buntings. Quarrels often result in midair tussles.
Males are equally vigorous in courtship. They will fly skyward in the presence of a prospective mate, singing an aria before gliding back to earth. They’ll even show her potential nest sites. Once they’ve picked out the real estate, the pair tends to be monogamous … with occasional lapses.
Any territorial belligerence is gone by the time the snow buntings return to Maine. They form large flocks, often numbering in the hundreds, and swarm restlessly around our fields and beaches. Birds in flocks are often vocal to stay together. Snow buntings are particularly noisy in the air, chirping away merrily as they cartwheel around the sky. They are quieter when foraging on the ground, but they usually don’t stay grounded for long. They’re jumpy when they’re together. Like many arctic birds that are unfamiliar with humans, single birds can be quite tame in the presence of people. To them, we’re just two-legged caribou.
In the bird world, a ground dweller requires camouflage. While snow buntings are in Maine, they take on a tawny brown color that blends in well with the dead grass sticking up through snow. However, because the males return to the tundra while it’s still winter, they need to lose that brown color in a hurry. This may be their greatest trick. They scrub themselves with hard-packed snow, rubbing all the brown out of their feathers. After scrubbing, they are snow-white, except for black in their wings and shoulders, the color of pebbles. The black comes from the pigment melanin, which is present in most birds. Melanin gives stiffness and durability to feathers. It stands up to the scrubbing, so that males lose only the brown.
Many arctic birds are circumpolar, and snow buntings are no exception. They can be found nesting in the upper reaches of North America, Greenland and Europe, with small pockets in northern Asia. They all head south in the winter, but the biggest surge takes place in the United States. Snow buntings routinely winter as far south as Virginia and Tennessee, and they have wandered as far as Florida.
Be on the lookout. They can be anywhere. In fact, anytime you see a flock of birds in winter, take a second look. Cedar and Bohemian waxwings travel in flocks. Many finches do. However, if the flock looks like snow falling, and all the birds settle to the ground, there’s a good chance you’re seeing snow buntings.