Wild Profile: Meet the ptarmigan

A white-tailed ptarmigan crouched in the snow By Carrie Olson/Shutterstock

Think of the ptarmigan as a kind of winter-hardy chicken. The alpine-dwelling bird, part of the grouse family, has feathered feet, the better for walking on snow, and plumage well-adapted to keeping it camouflaged year-round. North America has three species of ptarmigan (taar-muh-gnn): the rock ptarmigan, the willow ptarmigan, and the white-tailed ptarmigan (pictured). They’re all chunky-bodied, with short tails, legs, and wings.

What’s unique about this bird?

In winter, all three species are nearly snow white. Unlike other birds, they go through three plumage changes during the year. (Other species typically have only breeding plumage in spring and summer, and their drabber, non-breeding colours come winter.) As the snow starts to melt, ptarmigans begin to moult their white feathers into a barred pattern, starting from the head and progressing towards the tail. By mid-summer, males and females look nearly identical. Then, as the summer turns to fall, both turn more and more grey. The process is barely complete before the birds begin moulting back to white again.

How do they survive winter?

Winter is a lean time for the ptarmigan. Food sources are low, and the birds are limited to the few plants growing above the snow—they eat the seeds, buds, and twigs of low shrubs. Willow ptarmigans, in particular, are very good at balancing on spindly branches of higher shrubs to get at the catkins and other goodies. The rock ptarmigan, on the other hand, prefers to scratch down into the snow to get at buried vegetation such as purple saxifrage. This avian is also smart enough to take advantage of the craters dug by caribou and muskoxen. Interestingly, research shows that each ptarmigan species has evolved a slightly different bill size and shape to allow it to successfully feed through the winter.

But can they fly?

In the spring, ptarmigan chicks hatch in their shallow nests; it can take an entire day for a baby to break out of its shell. Then, it eats its own yolk sac for protein. Uh, yum? Within a few days, chicks can scurry, mouse-like, along the ground. By the time they’re a week old, they can fly—though they’re very clumsy. They get better at it, of course. (Less chicken-like.) Flying skills become especially important for our northern-dwelling adult rock ptarmigans. Some migrate as far as 800 km in a year, making them the most nomadic of the grouse species.

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