“Sometimes we hear the snow buntings — what we call ‘snowbirds’ — before we see them,” the Inupiaq hunter and wildlife guide Robert Thompson writes. One heard singing atop your wall-tent or through a home’s air duct upon awakening “adds much cheer to your day.” For Thompson in Kaktovik and other Alaskans, these longspur relations herald days woefully short despite 24-hour light.

Surviving in the far north

This circumpolar pip, the planet’s northernmost passerine and perhaps toughest bird, nests farther north than ravens. It inhabits nunataks, stone-islands glaciers engulf, and U.S. Navy submariners spotted it at the pole. The “very epitome of an arctic bird” snow-bathes and digs into drifts during −35 spells, overnighting in burrows thus made. One chased by a hawk might plunge into deep powder. Audubon watched several, hoar-frosted, too numb to fly. Snow buntings that coastal storms delay in Fairbanks refuel for their journey’s last leg by gleaning dead bugs or shriveled chokecherries. Grounded, they roost in huddled masses yearning to stay warm. Downy ankles reduce heat loss through the migrants’ naked feet.

The icy gusts of such an existence snuff out four in 10 adults every year.


Even airborne, glimpsed easily from the corner of an eye, plump, sparrow-size “snowflakes” can’t be mistaken for other birds. Billowing flurries—Audubon’s “compressed squadrons”—will “relax the closeness of their phalanx” and sweep low across foreshores and tundra where, jumping or wing-brushing beach grass to drop seeds, they hustle before pairing up.

Traveling day and night in chirping currents of hundreds or thousands, this blizzard of urgency steers by geomagnetic clues. Males, among the first birds to return to North Slope breeding grounds, after wintering in the northern United States touch down in early April and right away chime, rattle, and buzz like gaudy wind-up toys, claiming territories and honing individual tunes. They flit about, snatching materials for sturdy cups of moss and dead grass they line with fur and shed ptarmigan feathers. Females join them three to six weeks later. Both sexes linger until the earth freezes rock-hard again in September, and some lag into November.

The cocks swap cream-and-cinnamon winter outfits for courtship tuxes with an inky back, wing-tips, and tail center and a bill turned from orange to obsidian, all enhancing the body’s bright, festive silk. Unlike many passerines, snow buntings molt only once annually, in the fall. As winter advances, the new pale-ginger feather tips abrade, rubbed against crusty snow. In February, fancy garb reappears, the black beneath plumes overlapping like scales. A male bunting gets the girl by flashing his wings soaring high and then gliding downward, warbling, before strutting “come-hither” routines after home-making, and perching on boulders while belting his heart out and ousting rivals, thus risking attracting the wrong kind: a predator. 

Snow bunting at nest with hungry chicks begging for food
Snow bunting with her chicks on St. Paul Island. Photo courtesy Tom Ingram.


Nesters on treeless tundra become easy prey. Cautious snow buntings rear their broods in rock crevices, vacant lemming burrows, hollow driftwood-logs, or sod-iglu ruins. Humans provide fox-and-snowy-owl-proof egg-laying nooks under snowmachine hoods, in pipelines, rusty barrels, empty tin cans, junked cars, and in one case, a “well bleached” Inupiaq skull. It’s no surprise buntings thrive throughout Prudhoe Bay’s oilfields, DEW sites, and Native settlements. A hen, camouflaged like a sparrow, often won’t leave her half dozen bluish, brown-speckled eggs, because of a nest’s chillier surroundings, and depends on her mate
feeding her. 

A bunting still whiter, a true birder’s prize, commemorates a naturalist who vanished kayaking on a collecting trip. Fewer than 6,000 McKay’s summer exclusively on a sprinkle of Bering Sea isles, wintering on the mainland between King Salmon and Kotzebue. Facing a birder in their ghostly plumage, both sexes meld with a snowscape. They interbreed with snow buntings, and experts believe they’re the same species and that these westerners sprang from outliers the last cold era trapped north of an ice sheet.

Buntings and people

Predecessors of hobby and academic ornithologists long studied the comings and goings of amautligauraq, “the one with a pouch,” alluding to the bunting’s boldly patterned back. Inuit telling a myth about one that forecast good weather for departing geese built stone piles whose cavities appealed to the songsters, which to them were auspicious. Families caught some as pets. Their cairn-dwelling kin revealed caribou happenings. The fledglings’ feathers blush rusty-brown when calf hair takes on a similar tinge, announcing prime skins for certain light garments. In August, after chicks have mastered flight, buntings gather for their southward migration, just as caribou do for theirs, to be waylaid by hunters. 

We unknowingly cater to these cold-lovers’ housing needs, but human actions (and inaction) also threaten them. Though today’s climate disruption expands their ranges, earlier springs outrun migrants, dooming chicks missing the peak of fly, beetle, mosquito, and caterpillar bonanzas. More bad news yet, higher temperatures bring competitors and red foxes to the bird so charming in its voice and appearance, its looks, and hoped-for arrivals.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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