Speaking of rabbits....
As winter approaches in northern Michigan, where I spent a lot of time growing up, the snowshoe rabbit prepares itself for snow season by growing a thick winter coat of white fur that serves as perfect camouflage when snow covers the forest floor.
The Snow Bunting takes the opposite approach. From its summer home in the Arctic, it heads to our latitude for the winter, where it gathers in large flocks to feed in the stubble of cut corn and soybean. So when it molts into its winter plumage, it trades its stark white summer feathers for rust-toned ones, the better to blend in with the browns of a midwest field in winter. Ironically, when I see the Snow Bunting arrive in late fall dressed for winter, it reminds me of summer campfires. Bouncing around in its fresh winter plumage, it looks like a lightly toasted marshmallow with wings.
As it passes the winter months in our warmer clime, the Snow Bunting's rust-tipped feathers gradually wear away, revealing the pure white beneath--like that toasted marshmallow after you strip away the tasty outer layer. Any browns that remain when the Snow Bunting heads back north in the spring are rubbed off in the crusty late Arctic snow. So the dazzling white coat of the male Snow Bunting in his mating-season best? It's really his winter jacket worn down to the threads. He won't get a new coat until just before heading south again in the fall.
But getting back to the Snow Bunting's pilgrimage to its nesting grounds in the north. As soon as the temperatures in the Arctic region begin to rise into the minus 20F range (early April), the male Snow Buntings reach their breeding ground to stake out a nesting area. The females head north 4-6 weeks later, when temperatures have risen to a level comfortable enough to get in the mood. They find a mate, make a nest deep in rock cavities safe from predators, lay their eggs and fledge their young while the temperature still hovers around freezing. It's so cold that the female cannot leave the eggs uncovered even long enough to grab a bite to eat. So she stays put, and the male brings her food every 15 minutes or so at least until the eggs hatch.
So, that's the Snow Bunting's annual rhythm in a few paragraphs. It's a tough life. A bird lucky enough to survive cold and storms and predators and window collisions may be able to repeat the annual cycle 6 or 7 times before its tiny heart gives out. You are not going to find a hardier songbird than the Snow Bunting, nor a more magical one. Let me explain.
The park where I most recently saw a small flock of Snow Buntings is a desolate place right now--a mile-long flat expanse of grassland that the Chicago Park District is working to restore. The invasive grasses have been cut and burned, leaving it looking like a lunar landscape. On a cold, gray, rainy day last week I was walking in the middle of that nothingness when I flushed a dozen Snow Buntings. Their wings flashed white against the charred ground--a small snowstorm of chittering life that melted when they landed. They flushed again as I continued on my way. Four times they flushed; four times their feather-snow brightened the drab surroundings. As we neared the north end of the park, they flushed for the fifth time. This time, they decided to stay aloft. They circled three times overhead, dipping and turning and winding and twisting--all the while tinkling like wind chimes--until they finally headed off east over the lake. I watched them fly away, and it wasn't until they disappeared that I realized--I was warm, and I was smiling.
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.