How to Identify Snow Buntings

Updated: May 12, 2021

In winter, look for snow buntings on shorelines, open fields and weedy roadsides. In spring, these birds head north to their Arctic breeding grounds.

snow buntingCourtesy Phyllis Terchanik
Snow bunting in non-breeding plumage

What Do Snow Buntings Look Like?

White feathers with rusty accents help snow buntings blend right into a winter landscape. Look for these buntings foraging in flocks for weed seeds in fields or along shorelines. When the flock flies a short distance to a better spot, they flutter like windblown snow, which inspires their “snowflake” nickname. They may form mixed flocks with similar winter species, such as horned larks.

This species is a medium sized songbird with a small bill; larger than an American goldfinch or dark-eyed junco but smaller than a robin. In summer, male birds are mostly white with a black back. Females have more streaks on their backs.

What Do Snow Buntings Eat?

Snow buntings primarily eat weed, grass and other plant seeds, as well as some insects such as flies, caterpillars and spiders. They look for food on the ground, so you won’t see them at your bird feeders.

“This is only the second time I’ve seen a snow bunting (above),” writes Phyllis Terchanik. I love the colors in its feathers as well as the flower seed that is still clinging to its beak as if I caught it by surprise eating a snack. I also like the reflection of the sky in its eye.”

Learn how to identify indigo buntings.

Snow Bunting (plectrophenax Nivalis)Glenn Bartley
Male snow bunting perched on a rock in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Snow Bunting Range

These spunky sparrow-like birds nest farther north than any other passerine. Male snow buntings head to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic in early April.  During this part of the year, their homeland is still covered in snow, and temperatures are as low as 22 degrees below zero. In winter, they head south to open fields, shorelines and weedy roadsides across all but the southernmost U.S.

Next, learn all about painted buntings.