Thursday, June 28, 2012

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) is a medium-sized grouse (there is a subspecies called Red Grouse in the UK) common to the northern latitudes, breeding just above treeline and retreating south into shrubby thickets or subalpine forests in winter.  

Found singly or in pairs in summer, they group together in quite large flocks in winter, burrowing into the snow for protection from the cold.

Willow ptarmigans moult from April to November, becoming entirely white during winter, mostly mottled brown during summer and a warmer shade of brown in autumn.  Both sexes retain the distinctive black bill and tail feathers year round.  When males moult in spring, their head, neck and upperparts turn reddish brown.  They reveal their bright red eye combs during courtship and aggression.

I didn't get a good photo of the female as she prudently slipped away into the meter-high willows.  She was in her breeding colours:  mottled brown overall, white belly, legs and undertail coverts.  

This fella was displaying and calling:  go-back go-back go-back-brrrrrr-ack-ack-ack

It has feathered feet to add insulation and enable it to walk on snow.

Ouch, Ouch, Ouch!  When we watched this bird and its mate walk on the small, sharp-edged road gravel, it looked as if they had very sore feet. 

In all other species of grouse, only the female takes responsibility for the young. However, the male Willow Ptarmigan often takes responsibility of the young also, in particular in defending them against predators. A small minority of male Willow Ptarmigan are polygynous.

The nest is a shallow scrape lined with grass, leaves and feathers, sheltered by rocks, logs or low shrubs.  The chicks leave the nest immediately after hatching and fly within a week.

Willow ptarmigans are mostly vegetarian, eating low foliage, buds, flowers, willow catkins and berries; they eat insects when available.

Quick now....what is the state bird of Alaska?  Yes, Willow Ptarmigan!

UPDATE:  I must add this little anecdote supplied by my friend Donna in Stettler.  She was up in Alaska some years ago.  There's a town there called Chicken.  Seems the original name was to be 'Ptarmigan' but the townspeople could not agree on how to spell this, so ... the town of Chicken, Alaska came to be. Who doesn't love that story? 

Thanks Donna.

All information from:

Birds of Canada (our guide Ken de Smet co-authored this book) 

The Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Michael Vanner
Parragon Publishing, UK



  1. You got some terrific photos! Good info, too.

    1. Thanks, Scott. This ptarmigan was far more concerned with impressing his lady friend than he was with us.