Are Those Snowbirds? or Snowbirds?

“Snowbirds” are the people who migrate annually from Canada and the colder northern parts of the United States to warmer southern locales during the winter. Their destinations include the American Sun Belt and Hawaii in the United States, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean. They used to be primarily older people, but are increasingly of all ages.

RV camperThe “Sun Belt” stretches all across the southern USA, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Texas, about two thirds of California as well as parts of North Carolina, Nevada, and Utah.

Mostly they are retired people who want to avoid the snow and cold temperatures of northern winters. Many bring their homes with them in the form of campers mounted on bus or truck frames, called recreational vehicles or RV’s. Some take their small cars along to be more mobile down there. Others travel on boats following the East Coast Intracoastal waterway southward, and have their cars shipped separately by special transport companies. They travel to the same location each year, because down there they will meet others who are practically like “Family” to them.

Conversely, a “Sunbird” is one who leaves warmer locales in the summer, migrating to cooler locales of higher elevations or more northerly regions, often for health reasons.

The name “Snowbird” is actually borrowed from the animal world. A large number of bird species migrate south because they can not find their food in the cold north during the winters. However a relatively large and variable group of birds actually stay in our cold area and find their food at feeding stations or, if raptors, among birds and other small animals. One could call them all snowbirds, but there is actually a species called “Snowbird”, which is the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).

Older readers may recall the song “Snowbird”, written by Canadian Lyricist Gene MacLellan and released by Anne Murray in her first album in 1969, and as a single in 1970.  It became Number one in Canada and the USA, and one of the most influential songs, both contemporary and country, by a Canadian Singer.

Another “Snowbird” is the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), which can be spotted in winter “tumbling” in large numbers across snow-covered fields, The last birds in the flocks always overtake the first birds in a restless rolling motion in their search for food, making them look like a wave on water. Snow Buntings breed in the High Arctic and migrate south into our area in Winter.

The generally very poor first Settlers from France were already used to supplementing their food with small European birds such as the Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana), which was served in French cuisine cooked and eaten whole. After their capture, some were actually kept in minute cages to be fattened before serving them. As a result of over-hunting the European Ortolan Bunting population dropped dangerously low. Environmentalist protests led to EU laws restricting their trade. The French Government banned their hunting in 1979.

SnowbirdThe historical poverty of many French-Canadian Settlers led numerous families in Québec to also hunt Snow Buntings and other small birds, catching them in nets stretched over the fields. This went on for over 200 years. One farm family were reported capturing from 300 dozen to 2,400 dozen per day, which were openly sold in markets in Montreal, Quebec City and Trois-Rivières for $1.50/dozen.

I clearly remember reading an article in the Montreal Gazette in April 1963, which enraged many Canadians. Fast action by both the Quebec Government and the Canadian Government placed the Snow Bunting on the protected listin June 1963.

The hunting of snowbirds has stopped, but the annual exodus of Snowbirds did not. According to Statistics Canada between 300,000 and 375,000 leave Canada each year to spend the winter in the South.

(Note: The choice of photos used to accompany this article is the sole responsibility of the Author under the Fair Dealing Provision of the Canadian Copyright Laws).

Written by

Peter Iden is a resident of Wasaga Beach and a Naturalist and Photographer who has a broad range of knowledge of the natural world. Peter is also a volunteer Warden for the Piping Plover Recovery Programme with the Friends of Nancy Island.


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