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Hardy little snow bunting migrates from Artic to warmer temperatures in 'frigid Minnesota'

The Outdoors
Lead Summary
Scott Rall, outdoors columnist

Winter finally looks like it has arrived. So far, the wildlife of Minnesota has had a pretty easy go of it due to unseasonably warm temperatures and not a lot of snow. Mild winters can benefit a whole host of different animals, but not all animals see those same benefits. What benefits some wildlife will negatively impact others.
I have often wondered how different species survive deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. There is one creature that seems to thrive during a terrible winter. These are the little birds that group in pretty large numbers and can be seen along different roadways and even highways in winter in Minnesota.
I called them snow birds but decided to find out exactly what kind of birds they actually were. After a call to the non-game specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and some Google activity, I came up with their proper name. They are called snow buntings.
Interesting creatures they are. I only see them in the wintertime in Minnesota, and this is because they are only here in the winter. They breed in the frigid Arctic tundra and migrate south to warmer temperatures all the way to what I think of as frigid Minnesota. They are a very hardy little bird.
The males show up in the Arctic when temperatures can still reach to 30 below zero. They stake out their territory and the females show up about 4-6 weeks later.
The males fly high into the air and then glide down singing their best rendition of “I am the guy for you.” The males and females look a lot alike, but just before the breeding season starts, the males will drag snow over their feathers and wings, and this effort exposes their bright black and beautiful breeding plumage.
They nest in cracks and crevices like those in a cliff face to protect their young from predators. Here is an interesting factoid. The female needs to sit on the nest all the time in order to keep the eggs and young from freezing. This requires the male to forage for food not only for himself but for his partner and the little ones.
I imagine this is quite an effort. They feed on seeds, grains, and depending on their location, they can eat ocean crustaceans. They can form large foraging flocks, and these are the groups I think I see on the shoulders of the roads in our area.
These birds spend little if any time in areas with high human populations and yet their populations have declined by over 64 percent in the past 40 years. Warmer temperatures can result in earlier insect hatches and put them out of sync with peak food availability during nesting season. The warmer temperatures credited to climate change can also allow other bird species to expand their ranges or increase their populations thus competing with the snow bunting.
Another threat to this thriver of cold is pesticide use. A chemical in treated seeds called neoicotinoids are of special concern. These birds feed on waste grain during winter months in agricultural areas. They can ingest these chemicals. Because these birds migrate at night, collisions with wind towers and other tall radio towers and similar structures can impact them in a negative way.
It really does not matter what kind of wildlife it is, there are risks and dangers around just about every corner. Snow buntings that have very little contact with what would normally be human interference still seem to be in the crosshairs.
Songbirds of almost every species are in dramatic decline. I will cover the root causes that are well known for many of these declines in a future column.
The next time you are driving down the road, many times even during a ground blizzard, take a minute and appreciate the wonders of nature and how God’s creatures were given the characteristics and skills to live and survive effortlessly where we would most likely perish in only a few hours.
The more you understand wildlife and their needs, the greater appreciation you will have for all things wild.
Scott Rall, Worthington, is a habitat conservationist, avid hunting and fishing enthusiast and is president of Nobles County Pheasants Forever. He can be reached at or on Twitter @habitat champion.

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