Medium-sized, sexually dimorphic songbird with white underparts and black-and-white wings. Breeding male is entirely black and white, with white head, nape, breast, belly, rump, and outer tail feathers and black back and central tail feathers; black-and-white wings. Breeding females have wings and tail like the breeding male but are rufous streaked with gray on the back; crown, lores, and auriculars pale rufous; underparts white with pale rufous wash on flanks, and band across breast. Fall and winter male and female like breeding female (Lyon and Montgomerie 1995).
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
Western Hemisphere Range
In the Bozeman area, the normal migration period in the spring is February 10 to March 15, with a peak on February 25.
Breeding range: rocky areas (for nesting) in or near vegetated tundra (for feeding). Winter range: open weedy and grassy fields, grain stubbles, shore; after heavy snowfall, conspicuous on roadsides and in farmyards. Attracted to debris piled up by wind on shores of lakes and rivers (Lyon and Montgomerie 1995).
Late fall to spring: mainly weed and grass seeds. Summer to early fall: mixed diet of seeds, buds, and invertebrates. Always forages on ground (Lyon and Montgomerie 1995).
Males return to their high arctic breeding grounds in early April to choose nest site because the competition for high-quality nest sites is intense. Females arrive 4 to 6 weeks later. Nests in rock cavities. Eggs are subelliptical; creamy white, pale blue or greenish blue background and variably marked with spots, blotched, scrawls. Significant annual variation in mean clutch size: 4.31 to 5.73.