The tundra is such a hostile and open ecosystem that you might not expect any birds to make their home here for long. Many migratory birds that we know will breed in the Arctic in the summer and winter much further south, where they have better access to food. But, a few species have found a way to stay here all year.
Some bird species will live in the tundra year-round, while others will migrate south once the cold sets in. The hoary redpoll, rock ptarmigan, snowy owl, and ravens will stay in the Arctic, while the snow geese and Arctic skua will migrate south.
Here are some of my favorite birds that you can find in the tundra.
Some birds have the adaptations and toughness to stay this far North throughout the year. There are advantages to staying because while the landscape can be tougher to live in, there isn’t much competition for food.
For example, the hoary redpoll is a bird that will take advantage of seeds and other available food in flocks throughout the year in Canada and Alaska’s northern reaches.
This passerine’s small size means that you would expect it to fly much further south in the winter. However, it tends not to stray too far, with some populations remaining in the same spot year-round. One way they can do this is via the extra-fluffy feathers on their body for insulation. They will even pluck these out to cool down if it gets unseasonably warm.
Another bird that is even more perfectly adapted to these snowy regions is the rock ptarmigan.
This is a fascinating bird that feeds on vegetation out in the tundra. Ptarmigans are commonly found in northern hemisphere habitats with heavy snow and mountainous regions. They forage on the lower ground, using the same brilliant adaptations.
The first of these is their ability to change plumage. Unlike many other game birds, they have a mottled brown look in the summer. This should allow them to stay camouflaged and out of sight of predators. Then, when winter arrives, they turn entirely white to blend in with the snow.
Of course, there are new problems for the ptarmigans in areas that see less snowfall than in previous years. Males will keep this white plumage into the breeding season to stand out to females. Furthermore, they get white feathers on their feet in the winter to protect them even further and feathery protection around their eyelids and nostrils.
Another tundra bird that has impressive white plumage is the snowy owl. This time, the feathers provide brilliant insulation but also help to protect the bird from the sun’s rays during the summer. Snowy owls are large, keen hunters that can maintain a year-round territory in the further reaches of Alaska and Canada. However, they are known to move further south into the forest in the winter when food is scarce.
This winter territory doesn’t usually include a lot of mainland USA apart from the very-most northern states. However, birders were surprised to find one in Central Park, New York City, in January 2021. One reason the owls stay is that ptarmigan are a primary food source, along with lemmings. Lemmings can go through population booms. A good year for lemmings means a year that owls in the tundra can thrive and raise more young. This also means that they are one of the few diurnal owls.
A completely different creature up in the tundra year-round is the raven. This bird is common across much of North America, and you can see populations in California and the top of Alaska. These birds are opportunists and will feed on carcasses when they can’t get live prey. Young ravens will even gang together to overwhelm local pairs to benefit any fallen caribou or other animals in the landscape. Their intelligence and social skills greatly influence their adaptability and survival skills.
Of course, we can’t talk about the birdlife of the tundra without talking about the different migratory species that change the landscape in the summer months. Many species arrive in large numbers to breed, raise their young, and then head south again. This makes sense for avian species that can migrate over much greater distances than land mammals. They can travel thousands of miles with the correct route and energy reserves.
Snow geese are among the most well-known and nest in great numbers on the tundra, where their eggs are at constant risk from arctic foxes. Once hatched, the precocial goslings can take to the water out of reach. Loons will also nest around the tundra’s lakes, skillfully fishing under the water with their sharp beaks. This is one of many arctic birds that looks more striking in its plumage here during the breeding season than when we see them further south in the winter.
Finally, the parasitic jaeger is also known as the Arctic skua in other parts of the world. Jaegers are closely related to gulls but are much larger and have a more fearsome reputation. The parasitic jaeger comes to the tundra to breed before migrating south. It takes advantage of other birds in the area and gets its name from stealing food from others. This makes sense if it takes less energy to steal a catch than to make a kill. They can also feed on the eggs of other breeding birds.
The tundra can host a lot of different species depending on the time of year. North America’s tundra can be rich in bird life in the summer and lacking in the winter. Breeding birds will flock here in the summer to feed and raise their young before leaving the ptarmigan, snowy owl, redpoll, and ravens to make the most of what remains. The adaptations of some of these resident birds are incredible examples of evolution. They show that any environment can host bird species year-round if the birds have the tools to survive.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.