Environmental chronicle : The snow bunting, feathered flake

As every year since 2004, our team from the CNRS and the French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor has been on the east coast of Greenland, in Ukaleqarteq, to study the animals (end). Today, the snow bunting.

At 4 a.m. they wake me up again. I can hear their little paws drumming above my head. Although they weigh only 35 grams, they make a hell of a racket. A whole family of snow buntings is hunting for insects and spiders in the permanent Arctic summer sun. Around 4 a.m. the sun comes out from behind the mountain and warms the dark shingled roof of our Greenlandic hut.

This sudden rise in temperature animates the invertebrates, which the buntings chase frantically. Several groups of four or five youngsters are accompanied by their mothers, from whom the youngsters beg for food with loud chirps.

The young buntings were born two weeks earlier in a rock crevice, a nest carefully chosen by their parents to be out of reach of ermines and foxes. These highly secure quarters are rare, and the males return from migration as early as April to guard their chosen nest and wait for the previous year’s mate.

They then face near-winter conditions, with temperatures often close to -30°C and blizzards that completely cover the birds huddled in the wind. They move around and rest in small groups but, unlike the penguins in Antarctica, they do not huddle together to better cope with the cold: they prefer to shiver, lying in the snow or in a rocky crevice, a few dozen centimetres apart.

Incredible buntings, which alone among the passerines (1) have managed to colonise the very high latitudes in the north of the globe. They nest all along the coasts of the Arctic as far north as Greenland, thanks to an extraordinary metabolism and sometimes a little help from humanity. In the cold, the buntings come close to the houses, to take advantage of the bread crumbs but also to peck at the grasses that surround the Inuit villages.

This vegetation is fertilised by the faeces of the inhabitants and the sled dogs, which are themselves mainly fed with the products of hunting marine mammals, birds and fish. Indirectly, some snow buntings are thus saved from the polar cold by the abundant marine resources of the Arctic.

These buntings, satisfied with the service, spend the whole winter in Greenland. The others migrate from West Greenland to the Great Lakes region of North America, or from East Greenland to the northern Caspian Sea in Russia. These long-distance journeys are made at high altitude and at night, using the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass. But navigation is not without its faults and some get lost, like this beautiful male that appeared in the Chausey Islands (Normandy) in the spring of 1994, which was already calling me towards Greenland.

(1) Small birds belonging to the order Passeriformes, which includes more than half of the 10,000 bird species.

Environmental chronicle

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