Murray recorded this after watching its composer, Gene MacLellan, perform it on Canadian TV. It was the second song MacLellan had ever written and he penned it in just 25 minutes. He also recorded it for his own 1970 album, Street Corner Preacher, and included an additional verse:
My mind says that I only want to be
A wanderer and just like you I'm longing to be free
But in my hearth I know it just a lie
For without her love the vision of my happiness will die
This was Murray's first hit. She started recording when the producer of a show that turned her down as a singer gave her a shot two years later. She became a very popular pop-country crossover artist.
This was the first ever gold record by a Canadian solo female artist.
Lyrically the snowbird is used as a metaphor for freedom by contrasting the narrator's inability to leave the place of his/her heartache with the bird's ability to just up and fly away.
Other artists who have recorded this song include Lynn Anderson, Bing Crosby with Count Basie, Burl Ives, Loretta Lynn, Al Martino, Elvis Presley, and Andy Williams.
This was an inaugural song inductee of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.
MacLellan's daughter Catherine MacLellan covered this own her 2011 album, Silhouette. She said: "That song changed my life on every level. If he hadn't written that song when he did or he hadn't done well, who knows, I might not even be here!"
According to Gene MacLellan biographer David Sheffield, the song's origins are widely debated on Prince Edward Island, where the singer-songwriter hailed from. "The legend of Snowbird is huge," he told CBC Music. "Every third person on PEI has a version of how and where the song was written. While there are similarities between the stories, the one thing they have in common is that the teller believes that their version is the truth."
One version of the story comes from Anne Murray, who said, "Gene told me he wrote the song in 20 minutes when he was walking on a beach in P.E.I. It's so appropriate, the mental picture of Gene–this frail little guy on the beach in the middle of winter, seeing these birds and conjuring up this image."
On the 2013 Family Guy episode "Chris Cross," Stewie and Brian travel to Canada to find out the true meaning of "Snowbird" from Anne Murray (who provided the voice for her character). When Stewie finds out that she didn't actually write the song, he forces her to perform it at gunpoint while bound and gagged.
This was used in the 2004 Malcolm in the Middle episode "Victor's Other Family." It was also featured in the 2007 thriller Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr., and in the 2009 romantic dramedy He's Just Not That Into You, starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, and Drew Barrymore.