Birds – Snowflake

(Plectrophenax nivalis) Finch family


Length—7 to 7.5 inches. About one-fourth smaller than the robin.

Male and Female—Head, neck, and beneath soiled white, with a few reddish-brown feathers on top of head, and suggesting an imperfect collar. Above, grayish brown obsoletely streaked with black, the markings being most conspicuous in a band between shoulders. Lower tail feathers black; others, white and all edged with white. Wings brown, white, and gray. Plumage unusually variable. In summer dress (in arctic regions) the bird is almost white.

Range—Circumpolar regions to Kentucky (in winter only). Migrations—Midwinter visitor; rarely, if ever, resident south of arctic regions.

These snowflakes (mentioned collectively, for it is impossible to think of the bird except in great flocks) are the “true spirits of the snowstorm,” says Thoreau. They are animated beings that ride upon it, and have their life in it. By comparison with the climate of the arctic regions, no doubt our hardiest winter weather seems luxuriously mild to them. We associate them only with those wonderful midwinter days when sky, fields, and woods alike are white, and a “hard, dull bitterness of cold” drives every other bird and beast to shelter. It is said they often pass the night buried beneath the snow. They have been seen to dive beneath it to escape a hawk.

Whirling about in the drifting snow to catch the seeds on the tallest stalks that the wind in the open meadows uncovers, the snowflakes suggest a lot of dead leaves being blown through the all-pervading whiteness. Beautiful soft brown, gray, and predominating black-and-white coloring distinguish these capricious visitors from the slaty junco, the ” snowbird ” more commonly known. They are, indeed, the only birds we have that are nearly white; and rarely, if ever, do they rise far above the ground their plumage so admirably imitates.

At the far north, travellers have mentioned their inspiriting song, but in the United States we hear only their cheerful twitter. Nansen tells of seeing an occasional snow bunting in that desolation of arctic ice where the Fram drifted so long.