The snow bunting is a dependable winter visitor in our area. Buntings appear every year and, in some years, they are present in great numbers. This year is below average for buntings, based on my observations. That’s in keeping with the trend for other migrants from the north. Some species have been very hard to find.
There’s no surprise in this. Many of the so-called “winter finches” are irruptive, to use a fancy birding term. It means they’re unreliable. Of course, the word has another connotation. They can be plentiful.
The reasons for this irregularity aren’t fully understood. Probably, it’s related to reproductive success. More young-of-the year mean more birds to migrate. Or more young birds may mean stress on food supplies and more likelihood of migration. Not every observer agrees with either notion, though. The birds may pick up and leave when the weather gets too harsh, just as human “snowbirds” do. They may respond to diminishing daylight, though that would happen no matter the size of the population.
In any case, snow buntings tend to think alike. Where one goes, there are likely to be more, and often many more.
The flock I saw rolling across an open field on Tuesday last week must have numbered several hundred. That’s a guess. Snowbirds are hard to count. They don’t sit still for very long, and when they do, they blend almost perfectly in the snow and stubble in fields this time of year. Trying to sort a snow bunting out of a field of corn stalks is an exercise in frustration. They are largely white, with enough gray and ochre to blend in perfectly. Far better to enjoy the birds as they fly. In flight, snow buntings are beautiful birds. The comparison with drifts of snow is inevitable, though the buntings are not wind-driven. They move on their own accord. The illusion of rolling is caused by their feeding habits. Birds in the rear of the flock rise above the mass and take their places at the front. And so on. With every move, the whiteness of their plumage seems to shine in the bright sunlight.
Snow buntings are often encountered along rural roads and even major highways. I remember a trip along U.S. Highway 2, which connects Grand Forks to my hometown, Stanley, N.D. The distance is about 260 miles. On this particular day, nearly every mile of the route seemed to have a flock of snow buntings. Of course, that was a singular occurrence. Still, a drive to Grand Forks from our place west of Gilby, N.D., sometimes produces several flocks of 100 or so buntings. Sometimes there are more, as there were last week. On the other hand, on some of my trips into town, I haven’t seen any snow buntings.
It may be that the depth of snow has something to do with where snow buntings put down. Or the late harvest may mean less grain spillage along the roadsides. Or maybe the landscape is literally frozen over, the result of a shower after the holiday blizzard – an unusual occurrence in itself. That’s the thing about birds. They give us plenty to think about.
Columnist Tony Bender added another last week, when he suggested that the sparrows rising from the prairie were carrying prayers for Hunter Pinke, a UND football player injured in a skiing accident over the holidays. Bender is the publisher of several newspapers in south central North Dakota, including Wishek, which is Pinke’s hometown.
“Imagine those prayers as sparrows springing from the snowy plains, dotting a pewter sky,” Bender wrote. His column appeared on the Herald’s website on Thursday, Jan. 2.
Bender’s birding skills aren’t the greatest; the sparrows he sees rising must be snow buntings. No other sparrow-sized bird is likely to be abundant in North Dakota in midwinter.
Based on one close encounter with Hunter Pinke, I think the snow bunting is an apt metaphor for all the hopes we all hold for his future. Several years ago, Suezette and I establish a scholarship in honor of Peter Hale, a runner who happened to be sports editor of the Dakota Student when I was its editor more than 50 years ago. That – the scholarship, not the editorship – gets us invited to a recognition event each year. One of the features of the event is a panel discussion. The questions aren’t probing; Pinke was asked who has the most beautiful hair on the UND football team. He answered by tossing his head and stroking his own locks, a cool and confident gesture that stole the show.
Of course, I’ve known his grandfather, Fred Lukens, who was in the advertising business in Grand Forks. His mother is Katie Pinke, publisher of Agweek magazine, which had its start at the Grand Forks Herald.
Associations with birds build up in memory, and thanks to Tony Bender, the snow bunting has become associated with Hunter Pinke. May everything go well with him.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.