Snow buntings

Did you know that some species of birds spend the entire year living in winter environments? They must be crazy!

Snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) breed in the northern Arctic and migrate by the thousands in winter to southern Canada and the northern United States. These birds are well adapted to winter conditions and are often seen huddled and shuffling on the ground to conserve heat.

Unfortunately, North American populations of this majestic passerine have declined by about 60% over the past 40 years. Is this decline related to climate change? Industrial farming practices? Declining insect populations? Collisions with human-made structures? Or a combination of these factors?

Scientists who want to better understand the causes of this decline have begun to study this species in Canada in greater depth. However, studying the movements of a highly nomadic migratory species over such great distances requires a lot of time... and hands! The Canadian Snow Bunting Network (CSBN) was created to establish a vast network of scientists and community members who follow and document the winter behaviours of snow buntings across the country, including a few study sites in the Eastern Townships and Montérégie!

Chelsey Paquette, Conservation Coordinator at the Granby Zoo, is an enthusiastic collaborator of the CSBN. Chelsey, with the help of other dedicated volunteers, captures and collects data on snow buntings in the Eastern Townships.

Although at first glance it may seem difficult to capture birds in the middle of a field and in the middle of a Canadian winter, it is not so difficult when you know how to do it! Snow buntings love cracked corn and tend to become loyal to feeding sites. These sites are usually located in exposed agricultural fields. When individuals return to the same site daily, a cage is placed where they can walk in to feed.

Once the bird is captured, we place a metal band with a unique number on one of its legs to identify each individual in the hopes that it will be recaptured elsewhere. Of course, the capture of individuals and the placing of federally regulated bands can only be done by qualified individuals. Finally, we also determine their wing size, weight, age, sex, and the amount of body fat, which is very useful to get through the cold winter months.

Do you live on agricultural land and want to participate in this project? Please contact Chelsey ([email protected]).

If you are interested in learning more about the CSBN and related projects, please visit the project website and check out the annual newsletters.

Photos by Alexi Hobbs,