Snow Bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis (Linnaeus, 1758) SB SNOBU 18500
Family: Passeriformes > Calcariidae

Snow Bunting, Liz Cutting

Snow Buntings are predominantly a winter visitor to Britain & Ireland although a tiny breeding population remains amongst snow fields on the highest Scottish mountains.

Winter visitors from northern breeding grounds in Iceland and Fennoscandia are widely distributed across the uplands of Scotland and England, and to a lesser extent Wales and the island of Ireland. However, most birdwatchers will encounter flocks of this confiding little bird on North Sea coasts from the Tees to Norfolk. The population in winter has increased by a third in 40 years.

In the breeding season, Snow Buntings adopt a very smart white summer dress, with black wings and tail making a superb contrast as they flutter across high mountain snowfields with their sweet bubbling call. You have to be lucky or determined to see them though, as the most recent survey identified only around 80 breeding territories in this harsh landscape.


Snow Bunting identification is often straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Snow Bunting.

related video

Identifying winter buntings

Reed Bunting. Photograph by Liz Cutting

If you find brown, streaky buntings hard to identify, this workshop is for you. Using video footage, still photographs and sound recordings we highlight the differences between four species of bunting that can be found in coastal areas in winter: Reed, Little, Snow and Lapland Buntings.


Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Snow Bunting, provided by xeno-canto contributors.



Develop your bird ID skills with our training courses

Our interactive online courses are a great way to develop your bird identification skills, whether you're new to the hobby or a competent birder looking to hone your abilities.

Browse training courses

Status and Trends

Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.


This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.



The Snow Bunting is restricted as a UK breeding species to mountainous areas of Scotland where it breeds in small numbers. It is an Rare Breeding Birds Panel species but is under-reported due to the difficulties in finding and monitoring birds in such challenging habitat (Eaton et al. 2021). It is believed that the population may have increased during the 1970s and 1980s although the possibility that the recorded increases may have resulted from higher levels of observer coverage cannot be ruled out (Watson & Smith 1991).The population appears to have subsequently remained relatively stable and the population estimate from the last full survey in 2011 was 60 territories (Hayhow et al. 2018). The breeding range in 2008–11 was substantially larger than it was in 1968–72 but smaller than in 1988–91 (Balmer et al. 2013).


A small relict population of Snow Buntings breeds on the high tops of mountains in the Cairngorms and northwest Highlands. During 2008–11

Occupied 10-km squares in UK

European Distribution Map

European Breeding Bird Atlas 2


The Snow Bunting range extent detected in 2008–11 was substantially larger than in the 1968–72 Breeding Atlas but smaller than in the 1988–91 Breeding Atlas. Occupancy figures are likely to be heavily influenced by the intensity of coverage on the high tops inhabited by this species. Nevertheless, other data confirm this trend. In winter there has been a 34% range expansion since the 1980s, with gains in the uplands and on the margins of the coastal range, in south and southwest England, Wales and Ireland.

Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK


Snow Bunting is a localised breeder, autumn passage migrant and localised winter visitor.

Weekly occurence of Snow Bunting from BirdTrack
Weekly occurrence patterns (shaded cells) and reporting rates (vertical bars) based on BirdTrack data. Reporting rates give the likelihood of encountering the species each week.


Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.


View a summary of recoveries in the Online Ringing Report.

Foreign locations of birds ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland

Foreign locations of Snow Bunting ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland
Encountered in: Winter (Nov-Feb); Spring (Mar-Apr); Summer (May-Jul); Autumn (Aug-Oct)


Lifecycle and body size information about Snow Bunting, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.



View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report


Feather measurements and photos on featherbase


For information in another language (where available) click on a linked name

Gaelic: Gealag-an-t-sneachda
Welsh: Bras yr Eira
Catalan: sit blanc
Czech: snehule severní
Danish: Snespurv
Dutch: Sneeuwgors
Estonian: hangelind
Finnish: pulmunen
French: Plectrophane des neiges
German: Schneeammer
Hungarian: hósármány
Icelandic: Snjótittlingur
Irish: Gealóg Shneachta
Italian: Zigolo delle nevi
Latvian: sniedze
Lithuanian: paprastoji sniegstarte
Norwegian: Snøspurv
Polish: sniegula (zwyczajna)
Portuguese: escrevedeira-das-neves
Slovak: snehulka severská
Slovenian: snežni strnad
Spanish: Escribano nival
Swedish: snösparv
Folkname: Snowflake


Interpretation and scientific publications about Snow Bunting from BTO scientists.


Causes of change

The small UK Snow Bunting population is believed to have remained relatively stable since at least the 1990s following previous increases (Hayhow et al. 2018) suggesting conditions have remained relatively favourable for this species. However, there are concerns that the species is likely to be vulnerable to climate change as Scotland lines at the far south of its breeding range (Chamberlain & Pearce-Higgins 2013) and declines and range losses have been reported elsewhere in Europe (Eaton et al. 2021).

Links to more information from

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