I was introduced to the snow bunting in upstate New York. There is still a lot of active agricultural land in the Finger Lakes region, where I lived for over a decade. During the winter months, whenever I drove north from the village of Trumansburg into the town of Covert (it is a family name, not an operation, and they still live there), the countryside opened up into broad, gently sloping fields covered with the stubble of corn stalks. At intervals I would see what looked like billowing clouds of white, brown, and black debris rise abruptly in the wind, wheel around, and float away in a tumbling whirl to resettle in a new location among the stubble. Eventually, I realized these were birds, and stopped the car to see what they were. They were snow buntings, mostly, occasionally with a few Lapland longspurs trailing along.
The buntings are one of those groups of birds wherein the common name somewhat confuses the actual relatedness among them. The David Sibley guide from 2000 placed the snow bunting as one of the “emberizine” sparrows along with towhees and juncos, while the indigo bunting and the other warm-weather buntings were set down among the cardinals and some of the grosbeaks (another misleading common name) in the family Cardinalidae.
Like many North American species, the buntings get their name from similar-looking Old World birds. Linnaeus created the genus Emberiza, from the German vernacular name for the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), but there are 43 other species in the genus, spread across Eurasia and Africa. In the days before molecular genetic studies, Emberizidae was a larger family and the New World high-latitude buntings were at times not included in it, but instead in the catch-all family Fringillidae (generally speaking, finches).
I have older reference books from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1940s that include both the snow buntings, longspurs, and the warm-weather buntings in the Fringillidae. But even at that time it seems to have been acknowledged that the fringillids had several clades — groups with a single common ancestor — that were not closely related but only resembled one another by virtue of the phenomenon of convergence.
In biology classes convergence is often demonstrated via similarity of entirely unrelated species, as with bears, pandas, and koalas. The idea is that similar environmental pressures can act on different genomes to produce similar-looking organisms. In fact, it also operates among more closely related organisms like the buntings (and the grosbeaks).
Although in 2000 Sibley placed the snow buntings and longspurs among the “emberizine sparrows,” that group was split after a 2008 molecular genetics study by Per Alström and others confirmed that the “New World emberizini” were a different clade from the Old World species. Alström recommended forming a new tribe, the Calcariini, but the group subsequently has been dubbed a family, the Calcariidae. The rest of the “New World sparrows” are now the Passerellidae.
Bunting is a peculiar word with many meanings, most of which have obscure origins. My trusty Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (fifth edition, 1947), which I bought at a yard sale in Bar Harbor, Maine in the summer of 1980 for a quarter, provides two apparently unrelated definitions for “bunting” and three more for “bunt.” The first definition of bunt is maritime; it is both the center of a fishing net and the center of a square sail that tends to “bag” when gathered up. Bunt is also a disease of wheat with ill-smelling spores.
Finally, bunt is a variant of butt, especially in the context of butting with horns. It is this last definition that leads to the baseball term. Interestingly, butt is derived from the Old French “boter,” but the English world batter is derived from the Old French “batre.”
All of this is fascinating, but probably has nothing to do with the birds’ name. Bunting is also the fabric that is typically hung out in public as part of celebrations, and it was also used to make flags and clothing for babies. The word bunting is derived from the Middle English “bonten,” which means “to sift,” which may refer to the process of making the fabric, originally from wool.
The one thing that bunting cloth and bunting birds have in common is that they can be eye-catching. Most Old World buntings aren’t colorful; many of them resemble some of the flashier New World sparrows, sporting boldly contrasting patterns of brown, black and white. But the bright yellowhammer is certainly eye-catching, and it is both widespread and common. The more tropical Old World buntings are reliably garish, but would have been encountered by Europeans well after they named their temperate-zoned brethren.
We get to see the calcariidae buntings in the winter and the passerellid ones in the summer. Of the latter, I have only ever seen the entirely blue indigo bunting, as it is the only one to range into the northeast U.S. Out west it has a closely related (they sometimes interbreed) cousin, the lazuli (LAHZ-oo-lee) bunting, which is blue with a white belly and rusty chest, and an almost psychedelic-looking relative called the painted bunting in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, which is a kaleidoscope of orange-red underparts, green wings and blue head.
The snow bunting breeds on the Arctic coast of Alaska, in the Canadian archipelago, and on the northern coasts of Quebec and Labrador, where the males are snow-white, except for black on their backs, the tips of their wings, and a triangle on their tails. When we see them in the winter the black is edged with brown and gray, and they have acquired a rusty blush on parts of their heads. They are hard to mistake for any other bird, even as they tumble away from you like so much snow and dried corn leaves.