Ptarmigan Information

(Lagopus lagopus, mutus, or leuvurus)


You will shortly hear the sounds of a male Willow Ptarmigan calling to a nearby female, recorded at Lost Lake, AK in early June.

Order: Galliformes (terrestrial birds)

Family: Tetraonidae (grouse, turkey, and quail)

Body: There are three species of ptarmigan and all are found in Alaska. The the the Willow Ptarmigan, Rock Ptarmigan, and White-tailed Ptarmigan. They are similar in body characteristics and weigh from 10.5 ounces to 1.5 pounds, but the White-tailed are generally the smallest type. Ptarmigan have a wingspan of about 18 inches and their wings remain all white, but are often covered by top feathers of a different color. Their feet are covered in feathers to help keep them warmer and for flotation on powdery snow. Their plumage varies from a mottled brow or grey during the summer to basically a solid white during the winter and they molt as the seasons change. During breeding season, they will exibit red or black bars above the eyes.

Diet: During the winter, ptarmigan will eat willow buds and twigs, birch catkins and buds, as well as alder. During the spring mating season, their diet expands to include flowers, last years berries, and all types of insects. During the early fall, as the insect numbers decrease, they again turn towards berries, seeds, and buds.

Range: The different types of ptarmigan favor somewhat different ranges but may all be living on the same mountain. They do have altitudinal preferences, but these are not rigid. Willow ptarmigan tend to live nearer to treeline, while Rock ptarmigan prefer lower ridges and middle slopes. White-tailed ptarmigan prefer to be by snow fields and along scree slopes and broken ridges.

During autumn, the males and females often seperate, with the females going to lower elevations tand the males staying higher. This migration varies but has been known to reaach distances of 100 to 150 miles. During the winter, ptarmigan are nomadic and rather social, roaming their range in large numbers in search of food and shelter. In the spring, as breeding season approaches, ptarmigan return in large numgers to their breeding range, but soon seperate to establish their own territories, which they defend vigorously.

Life History: Breeding season for ptarmigan occures in early spring and the hen nests on the ground when the snow melts. The hens will lay 6 to 10 eggs, and in late June or eary July, after an incubation period of 3 weeks, the young chicks are born. They will grow very rapidly and can fly as early as nine days after hatching. They will have their full set of flight feathers usually by the age of 8 to 10 weeks. The male Willow ptarmigan remains involved with the family, however the male Rock and White-tailed ptarmigan do not assist with raising of the chicks.

The population numbers of ptarmigan can vary remarkably within just a few years. It is not known why this variance between abundant and poor population numbers occures but it may be due to the high reliance on a years chick birth and survival rate. Their is some evidence to suggest a cyclic population, with a peak every 9 to 10 years. This same type of population cycle is evident in anamals such as the snowshoe hare and the lynx.




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