Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) p2-song

Iyanna Williams & GAbrielle Ho

Snow Bunting(Plectrophenax nivalis) Song


The snow bunting’s song is very similar to the Carpodacus finches. Although certain syllables are shared between males in the same area, each has their own individual song (Espmark 1995). Occasionally, birds might change parts of their song over the course of a year (Baldo 2014). Each snow bunting sings one song (Tinbergen 1939).  Although syllables are usually sung a few at a time, they are always in the same order.



Snow Buntings have many different calls

  • Fledglings have a begging song, a high pitched pee.
  • Most adults have a tremble call similar to pirr-rrit, tirr-rrip
  • An anger call-churr, skirr, or chree

And many others ( Bna)

Examples of American dwelling Snow Buntings:

Male songs (a) Sarcpa Lake, NWT, and (b) Prudhoe Bay, AK; (c) Churr (left) and Chitik (right) calls from males at Sarcpa Lake, NWT; (d) nestling begging calls from 7-d-old nestlings at Igloolik, NWT. All recordings by RM.


When Do they Sing?

Male Snow Buntings start singing once they arrive at the breeding grounds, though the song they sing is not perfect and is practiced (Tinbergen 1932) (note that they do arrive prior to the females so is is not detrimental if they can’t sing perfectly immediately). Once they have a mate, they will stop singing on a regular basis, though there are a few situational exceptions. For example, if their mate is out of view, they will begin singing.



Possible dialects have been observed in the Canadian Arctic, but they have not been studied enough to officially say for sure . Yngve Espmark conducted two separate studies, one in 1995 and one in 1999 in which he observed song variation amongst male Snow Buntings, and was unable to find any evidence of distinct dialects when comparing snow buntings within Spitsbergen and when comparing birds in Spitsbergen to those in the mainland of Norway. More studies need to be done on the dialects, or lack thereof, for snow buntings.


Song ability is limited by other needs, including foraging. A male with a high quality song implies that they are likely to be good at foraging (Hofstad 529). Studies have shown that song rate is connected in the female’s choice when picking a mate. A higher song rate for a male makes them more appealing to prospective females as it says that they will provide food for their babies and do a good job protecting their territory (Lyon et al. 1987). Once a male has a mate, it is there is a chance the male Snow Bunting’s song rate will decline. Although the observations on Svalbard were difficult to get and might have other reasons for the song rate seemingly going unchanged (Espmark 1995) .


Flight Song Display

Usually, Snow buntings only use a few syllables in their everyday activity. The most likely time the full song would be used is in a Flight Song Display; when birds will fight in the air with their bills and feet to the ground, often in responses to what it believes to be a threat to its territory. It is used multiple times in rapid succession (Espmark 1995, RM).



Baldo, S., Mennill, D.J., Guindre-Parker, S., Gilchrist, H.G., and Love, O.P. 2014. Snow Buntings sing individually distinctive songs and show inter-annual variation in song structure. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 2.


Espmark, Y. 1995. Individual and local variations in the song of the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) on Spitsbergen. Bioacoustics no. 6:117-133.   

Tinbergen, N. 1939. The behavior of the Snow Bunting in spring. Trans. Linn. Soc. N.Y. no. 5:1-95.

Nethersole-Thompson, D. 1966. The Snow Bunting. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

Nicholson, E. M. 1930b. Field-notes on Greenland birds, Part 2. Ibis no. 6 (12):395-428.

Lyon, B.E., and Montgomerie, R.D. 1985. Incubation feeding in snow buntings: female manipulation or indirect male parental care? Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 17: 279–284.

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