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Snow Buntings

Every year, along the shoulder of the road, headed up towards the Susie Islands and the border between the U.S. and Canada, there are explosions of buntings. These are small, white birds flying in tight flocks that seem to move and sway with the wind. These tiny sparrow-like birds are only about six inches long, weighing less than an ounce.

They are a winter delight as they seem to burst across the landscape of muted pine and the occasional mountain ash. They mix with the birch and white snow. One reference ( described them in their symmetry as a moving “snowstorm.” This is how they have always seemed to me.

The passerine nivalis bird, its Latin designation, is unique for having feathered legs or tarsi. Wikipedia comments, “No other passerine can winter as far north as this species apart from the Common Raven.”

And winter north they do. Varieties of this breed can be found in the Aleutians and deep into Kamchatka’s northern outpost in the old Soviet Union. They can migrate in small isolated populations to places such as Arctic Asia and the Saint Elias Mountains on the southern Yukon-Alaska border. Their breeding grounds range throughout the northern circumpolar hemisphere, where the cold kings reign and conquer.

And that is why they are gone now. With the warmth of our spring approaching, suddenly, I am aware these delightful gypsies have now left the canoe country of Minnesota and lower Canada. These tiny, presumably fragile wisps of feather are off to the tundra and the treeless moors and the bare mountains of the far North.

So encoded is the aviary DNA that they will arrive at the high-latitudes of the Arctic “in early April when the temperature there can reach minus twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit, when grasses and weeds are usually covered with snow” (Audubon).

And so we are privileged that they drop this far south to migrate using the open habitat the lake affords. They are a gift the snow gods bestow that we should not take for granted. As with life, their coming is brief, and their instinctual habits, strange to us, are built into survival patterns that, for many of us, seem incredulous.

Snow buntings appear on the tundra in brown, ginger-colored feathers during breeding. They bear little resemblance, as with many birds, to their seasonal counterparts. The swirling, driving interplay of these small flocks blending into the flurries of snowstorms is temporarily suspended as they adapt to earth-brown and burnished copper-golds and pale yellow low-profile plants and grasses of the tundra.

As I reflect on this, I realize these tiny creatures teach me a lot about life. What we think of as fragile is strong and hearty. What we think of as fruitless effort becomes to them survival as they are awakened to the imperative of moving further North.

We sometimes think of comfort and ease and the upcoming season that grants us more leisure and play. Snow Buntings drive into the wind and embrace the harsh environs.

They fly together, as one, for reasons unbeknownst to me, but I expect this symphony of perfectly choreographed movement and pitch helps too in their survival.

Chickadees are another favorite bird of mine, and I have always thought they are a grand symbol of the North. They stay all winter while others of their species leave. They are abundant here, although they must take cover deep in the shadows of pine trees to survive in the harsh sub-zero temperatures.

But in spring, as they appear at bird feeders, they are a part of an awakening chorus. The streams now breaking away from the ice and snowbanks are apparent. The staccato of water drops falling from the eaves of homes is also part of this change.

Snow buntings miss all this. It would seem they have endured the worst of the cold. But now, they move further north into climates that will test their physical capacities. They welcome it. It is natural to them. It is somehow right and in the order of things that they should stay ahead of the melt to wing their way hundreds if not a thousand miles to their summer home.

In some sense, they are the winter symbol for me that is coming to displace the chickadee. While the chickadee is a friend and companion to those living here, the bunting is true North.

These tiny, one-ounce bits of fleeting feather instruct us that our views of what constitutes hardship might be distorted. They tell us that a resolute mindset is vital. They signal that sometimes to leave comfort and ease is not only an individual prerogative but something whole cultures or populations must also be willing to do.

These explosions of white, flushed like pheasants from out of the trees, convince us that appearances are not to be trusted. As we drive by and see these snow flurries on sunny, winter days, they can tell us more than what we first suppose.

Snow buntings have left us for more promising terrain even when we cannot see why. Maybe that should tell us something about our national character and how we organize life on this planet. While they wing their way north, we are often content only with comfort. While they seek the harsh winds of the Arctic to make their home, we can value ease more than challenge.

"Snow Buntings" from my first book available on or at a local Grand Marais bookstore.

A book for Come Away Minutes for Myself that celebrate the North and the wisdom it teaches.