Facts About Ptarmigan

White-tailed ptarmigan

What is a ptarmigan?

Ptarmigan is pronounced (tar-mgn). It’s the name for three species of grouse that live in the mountainous and arctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia.

These birds grow feathers on their and legs and feet to the tips of their toes for wintertime insulation. Additionally, in the winter, their plumage turns white to blend in with the snow.

Rock, willow, and white-tailed are the three ptarmigan species. Of these three species, white-tailed ptarmigan is the only one that is exclusively endemic to North America. Rock ptarmigan and willow ptarmigan not only live in the arctic regions of North America but also exist in the arctic of Europe and Asia. Additionally, of the three species, white-tailed ptarmigans are the only ones that live south of the U.S-Canadian border.

What do ptarmigan look like?

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan, (Lagopus leucura)

White-tailed Ptarmigan are the smallest ptarmigan. They’re also the smallest members of the grouse family. They’re stocky, short-legged and round bodied with rounded wings and a square tail. They also have feathered legs, feet and toes, and a black beak.

Adult White-tailed Ptarmigan are around 12 inches long (30.5cm), with some being slightly longer and some being slightly shorter. Males in this species are only slightly larger than females. Their weight ranges from 11.5 to 17 ounces.

In the summer, white-tailed ptarmigan are grey with white speckles. Their plumage changes with the seasons, though, to better camouflage them with their surroundings. By fall, they are rusty brown with some white feathers showing through. Subsequently, they have molted away all of their colored feathers by wintertime and have replaced them with white ones that blend in with the snow.

Male white-tailed ptarmigan have a red comb over each eye that is always present but most evident during their spring breeding season.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)

Willow Ptarmigan are the largest of the three ptarmigan species. Adults average 15.1 inches (38 cm) in body length and 22oz. (624 grams) for body weight. Some are a little larger than this, and some are a little smaller. In all three ptarmigan species, males are slightly larger than females.

Male willow ptarmigan are mottled brown with white wings and bellies and a black tail. Additionally, they have semi-circular red combs above each eye that become engorged with blood during the mating displays that they put on in the spring.

Female Willow Ptarmigan have similar plumage to males but lack the pure white coloring on their bellies. They also lack the prominent combs that males have.

Both males and females molt their brown feathers and have pure white plumage in the winter, except for having black outer tail feathers.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Adult Rock Ptarmigan are between 13 and 14 inches (33 to 36 cms) long and weigh around 18 ounces (510 grams) on average.

Their plumage is mottled brown in the summer, but like willow and white-tailed ptarmigan, they molt their brown feathers and become almost entirely white in the winter. Even though they’re mostly white in the winter, they still have black outer tail feathers and a black bar across each eye. The black eye bar is a distinguishing feature in rock ptarmigan.

Ptarmigan Range; Where do ptarmigan live?

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed ptarmigan live in Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alberta, Canada. They are also the only ptarmigan species to live in the latitudes south of Canada. In the lower 48 states of the United States, they live in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico. There are also populations of them that have been introduced to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and the Uintah mountains of Utah.

White-tailed ptarmigan habitat is in high mountain or tundra country at or above timberline. Most of the vegetation in their habitat will be less than a foot tall.

If any trees are present, they will be stunted, twisted, and gnarled by the wind. Krummholz is the term for these areas of twisted, gnarled trees near the timberline. The German word for bent or twisted is “krumm,” while “holz” is German for wood.

Their habitat is also likely to have lichen-covered rocks and mountain willows stunted by the high elevation environment. Source

These birds are likely to be found in meadows bordering high elevation alpine streams or along the edges of melting snowfields.

They live in these environments year-round while only possibly descending below timberline in the event of severe winter weather.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow ptarmigan live in Alaska, where incidentally, they’re also the state bird. They also live in the Canadian north country from Newfoundland west to British Columbia. Source

Ornithologists have named 19 sub-species of willow ptarmigan worldwide. However, some of these divisions may not be valid Source

Outside of North America, willow ptarmigan live in the following places.

  • Ireland
  • Great Britain
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Spain
  • Russia
  • Bulgaria
  • Estonia
  • The Czech Republic
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Croatia
  • Siberia
  • New Siberia
  • Kazakhstan
  • China
  • Mongolia

Willow ptarmigan are more likely to stay below timberline than rock ptarmigan, and white-tailed ptarmigan are. These birds prefer wet meadows to feed on willow buds and other plant material, whether in the tundra or mountain valleys.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock ptarmigan live in all the arctic and some of the alpine regions of the world. They live in Alaska in the U.S and British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland in Canada. They also happen to be the territorial bird of Nunavut.

The following countries outside of North America have rock ptarmigan.

  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Greenland
  • Russia
  • China
  • Japan
  • Switzerland
  • France
  • England
  • Scotland
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia

In alpine and arctic environments, these birds live above timberline, whereas willow ptarmigan prefer to live below timberline.

Ptarmigan Diet

Adult ptarmigan are almost entirely vegetarian. All three species eat a lot of willow buds and willow leaves. They also feed on whatever plant material is available specific to their region and environment, including berries, seeds, grasses, sedges, buds, and leaves from other plants besides willows. They also eat insects, but bugs take up a small percentage of an adult ptarmigan’s diet. On the other hand, Chicks eat insects primarily and eat a more significant percentage of plant material as they get older.

Ptarmigan life history

White Tailed Ptarmigan

Whited tailed ptarmigan live in alpine or tundra habitats year-round. In the autumn, they migrate downslope into a more sheltered country and may even move below the tree line in the case of severe winter weather.

Ptarmigan males arrive in the breeding grounds in late April or early May to stake out a territory. They vigorously defend their territories from other males. Most of the time, their territories are 35 to 70 acres in size.

Females arrive in the breeding areas after the males, some time in May. They inspect their prospective mates putting on courtship displays that include calling, strutting with their feathers fanned out, and their wingtips dragging the ground, bowing and pecking the ground.

When the female gets down to selecting her mate, she will generally nest within his breeding territory. At times a male white-tailed ptarmigan will have more than one mate. Source

After mating, male white-tailed ptarmigans are attentive to their mates until they begin to incubate the eggs. The male does not take part in the incubation of the eggs or the rearing of the chicks. All this is taken care of by the female.

Female white-tailed ptarmigan nest on the ground in a scratched-out depression which she lines with plant material and feathers. Her clutch size averages around five eggs. If she loses her clutch, she may remate with a different male.

White-tailed ptarmigan chicks are born able to feed themselves and leave the nest with their mother within 12 hours after hatching.

Willow Ptarmigan

Similar to white-tailed ptarmigans, male willow ptarmigans arrive at the breeding area a couple of weeks before the females do. At this time, they stake out their territories which average around 11 acres. They aggressively defend these territories from incursion by other males.

Like white-tailed ptarmigan, male willow ptarmigan fan their feathers, bow strut, pound the ground with their feet and make their eye combs stand erect to attract the females. Females appear to consider which male has the most energetic courtship display and the largest combs when choosing a mate.

Males may mate with more than one female. If a male has two mates, the second female will have a sub nesting territory within the male’s territory.

Willow ptarmigan females make their nests on the ground in scratched-out bowls lined with grass and moss, leaves, and feathers. Incubation takes 21 to 23 days. The chicks are born able to feed themselves and are out of the nest soon after hatching.

Male willow ptarmigan stay with the females and help rear the young for up to 7 months after birth. Incidentally, they’re the only grouse species in which this occurs. Source

Rock Ptarmigan

The mating habits of rock ptarmigan are similar to those of willow and white-tailed ptarmigan. For instance, the males establish breeding territories that they patrol and kick out any intruding male ptarmigan. The females arrive a couple of weeks later on the breeding grounds to inspect the males and choose their mates.

The males then put on courting displays to entice the females into their territory. Their courting is similar to that of the other two ptarmigan species we’ve talked about. Something they do that is unique to them is explicitly fly high in the air and then glide back to the ground singing all the way.

Female rock ptarmigan seldom switch mates, but males may mate with more than one female within their territory.

After they have successfully mated female rock ptarmigan construct a nest within their mate’s territory consisting of a scratched-out depression lined with moss, plant material, and feathers. There’s a wide variation in the number of eggs in their clutches. They can vary from 3 to 13 eggs.

The male will stay with the female until just before the eggs hatch; then, he leaves the territory and rearing the chicks to her.

Rock ptarmigan chicks are born able to feed themselves and will leave the nest with their mother within 6 to 12 hours after hatching. Source Source

Are ptarmigan good to eat?

It all depends on your regional dietary preferences or, in other words, what you are used to. In Iceland, Rock ptarmigan are a delicacy akin to having a Thanksgiving turkey in the U.S. The indigenous people of the North American arctic also consider ptarmigan to be a delicacy.

It also probably depends on the diet of the ptarmigan. Some people consider ptarmigan meat to have a slightly bitter edge to it. This could be attributed to the birds having a diet high in willow buds and leaves.

Bitter or not, these birds live in some of the cleanest places left on the globe, and their meat is probably correspondingly wholesome.

Final thoughts

If you find yourself in ptarmigan territory, you’re out where most people won’t go because of its remoteness. Challenge yourself to be in ptarmigan country sometime within the coming year.

Also see: Sage Grouse – Krebs creek

Chukar Partridge – Krebs Creek

Blue Grouse – Krebs Creek

Ring-Necked Pheasant – Krebs Creek

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