McKays Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus)

McKays Bunting

[order] PASSERIFORMES | [family] Calcariidae | [latin] Plectrophenax hyperboreus | [UK] McKays Bunting | [FR] Bruant boreal | [DE] Bering-Schneeammer | [ES] Escribano de McKay | [NL] Mc.Kay’s Sneeuwgors


Genus Species subspecies Breeding Range Breeding Range 2 Non Breeding Range
Spiza hyperboreus
Plectrophenax hyperboreus
Plectrophenax hyperboreus NA Alaska

Physical charateristics

An Alaskan specialty. The male in breeding plumage is almost pure white, except for the ends of the primaries and scapulars and the tips of the central tail feathers. Females show some dark on the back. In winter, the
re are light touches of brown, but less than in the Snow Bunting.

wingspan min.: 30 cm wingspan max.: 33 cm
size min.: 16 cm size max.: 18 cm
incubation min.: 10 days incubation max.: 16 days
fledging min.: 13 days fledging max.: 15 days
broods: 2   eggs min.: 3  
      eggs max.: 5  


North America : Alaska. Plectrophenax hyperboreus breeds on the Hall and St Matthew islands (totalling 300 km2) in the Bering Sea, USA, and occasionally on St Lawrence and probably St Paul islands. It winters along the west Alaska coast from Kotzebue to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, irregularly on the south coast of Alaska, occasionally to the Aleutian Islands and accidentally in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington and Oregon, USA.


Tundra, barrens, shores.
Probably breeds in most available habitats in its very limited range, including open tundra with numerous rocky outcrops, stony beaches, and rocky scree slopes with little vegetation. Winters mostly on coastal beaches and low tundra near the shore.On St. Matthew and Hall Islands, McKay?s Bunting is an obligate cavity nester with a preference for coastal lowlands. Most nests are in areas of scree or in cliff or other rock faces, although this may not have always the case. Nests are sonmetimes built in hollow drift logs. This discrepancy may be due to climate change, which could effect a change in nest-site availability at the start of the breeding season.


McKay?s Buntings begin laying eggs as early as 10 June and as late as 23 June. Clutch initiation dates can vary by at least 22 days in a given year. McKay?s Bunting may be doublebrooded. Indeed, the discovery of a male with a brood patch lends support to this possibility, since a double-brooded female McKay?s Bunting might need to charge her mate with rearing her first brood if she had the time to rear a second in the short subarctic breeding season. Nesting behavior is not well known, but probably similar to that of Snow Bunting. In display on breeding grounds, may sing while flying in a wide circle. Courtship may involve male chasing female.
Site is usually in some protected cavity, such as a deep crevice in cliff, among or underneath rocks, or inside hollowed-out pieces of driftwood; these secure sites may be chosen for protection from Arctic foxes, abundant where these buntings live. Nest
(probably built by female) is a shallow cup of grass, lined with finer grasses.
Eggs: Probably about 5. Pale green, dotted with pale brown. Details of incubation poorly known; probably similar to Snow Bunting, with female incubating about 10-16 days.
Young: Probably fed by both parents, and probably leave nest about 10-17 days after hatching, as in the Snow Bunting.

Feeding habits

Probably mostly insects and seeds. Diet is not known in detail, but undoubtedl
y feeds on many insects (and some spiders) in summer, mainly or entirely on seeds in winter, including the seeds of grasses and weeds. Along shorelines, may also eat tiny crustaceans or other marine life.
Behavior: Forages while walking and running on the ground, picking up items from the ground or from plants. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks.


This species has a very small population confined to a small breeding range on just four islands. However, as it is currently increasing its range and numbers, it is currently considered Near Threatened.
McKays Bunting status Near Threatened


In early October, McKay?s Buntings begin migrating along at least three migration routes. An eastbound route to Nunivak Island, by the end of November, some of these birds have worked their way up the Kuskokwim River as far as Bethel. Some birds follow a southbound route from St. Matthew Island and reach the Alaska Peninsula via the Pribilofs and the eastern Aleutians. The third route is northbound via St. Lawrence Island. Outside of Alaska, the species has been seen at Pacific Rim National Park and Richmond in British Columbia, the Lummi Indian Reservation and Ocean Shores in Washington, and Fort Stevens State Park and Depoe Bay in Oregon. The species has occurred in winter on Russia?s Kamchatka Peninsula or Japan?s Hokkaido. As early as mid-March, some McKay?s Buntings (likely older males) return to St. Matthew and Hall Islands. However, most of them apparently remain on their wintering grounds until mid- April. Between then and the beginning of May, these birds migrate to staging areas such as Hooper Bay and Gambell.

Distribution map

McKays Bunting distribution range map

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