What Are Those Birds By the Road in Winter?

Here in the Midwest we get a fair bit of snow. When the snow fills the rural fields, it pushes many birds out to the edge of the country roads. If you are newer to birding, you may be wondering, What are those birds by the road in winter?

The three most common “shoulder” birds are Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings.

Horned Lark

Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) are found in northern Illinois year round, but become conspicuous in winter, especially after a snow. These handsome birds have a yellow face with a black mask and adorable black “horns” on their heads. They can be easily overlooked, but a closeup view reveals a quite stunning bird.

Cool Fact: “Horned Larks inhabit an extensive elevation range, from sea level to an altitude of 13,000 feet.”

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur in the foreground with a Horned Lark in the background

Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) breed in tundra habitats but migrate in winter to the Midwest (and elsewhere). Lonspurs in breeding plumage are spectacular. During the winter they have much subtler looks.

Cool Fact: “The name “longspur” refers to the unusually long hind claw on this species and others in its genus.”

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) follow a similar template to Lapland Longspurs. They breed in the far north, visit us in the winter, and look duller. However, Snow Buntings do keep some of their bright white plumage, and can be quite stunning when they suddenly fly up when you drive by.

Cool Fact: “Although breeding and nonbreeding Snow Buntings look quite different, the change from nonbreeding to breeding plumage isn’t caused by growing in a new set of feathers (molt). The change from brownish to pure white happens when males rub their bellies and heads on the snow, wearing down the brown feather tips to reveal immaculate white features below.”

Why Do They Hang Out By The Road?

Mixed flocks of these three wonderful birds can number in the tens to hundreds (sometimes thousands!). When driving down a rural road, they will burst from the ground, flying in all directions (including at your car). This usually occurs after a heavy snow covers the crop fields, pushing the birds to the road edges. Snow plows often leave strips of open ground on the road shoulder, providing foraging grounds for the birds. They also gobble up grit to help with digestion.

So when you are out driving in winter on country roads, slow down and observe these winter road birds up close.

The “Cool Facts” quoted in this post are from Cornell’s All About Birds.

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