Living Bird Magazine
Willow PtarmiganLagopus lagopus
- ORDER: Galliformes
- FAMILY: Phasianidae
A master of camouflage, the Willow Ptarmigan is snowy white in winter and an intricate mix of reds and browns in summer. This rotund grouse of subarctic tundra lives year-round in areas where most bird species can survive only during the warmer months. Ptarmigan are well suited to brutally cold winters, using heavily feathered feet to walk over deep snow, and excavating snow burrows in which they take shelter from the elements. Perhaps because their camouflage is so good, wild ptarmigan often act tame and unafraid of people.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Willow Ptarmigan are usually easiest to find in spring, when the birds (especially males) perch in bushes and on fence posts or walk almost defiantly along roads, tolerating close approach. They are harder to find in summer, when their camouflage makes them hard to pick out against the tundra. But because they are relatively common, careful scanning through appropriate habitat should turn up a few. In winter, look for flocks where patches of willow protrude above the snow—but remember that they can be hidden inside snow burrows.
- Lagópodo Común (Spanish)
- Lagopède des saules (French)
- Cool Facts
- Willow Ptarmigan form flocks in winter, and where food is plentiful these flocks can be as large as 2,200 birds! In eastern Canada, migratory flocks of the species have even turned up offshore, landing on oil-drilling platforms or ships well out to sea.
- The word ptarmigan is from the Scottish Gaelic “tàrmachan,” the old name for Willow Ptarmigan in the northern British Isles. The “p” was added to the name because early ornithologists thought that the word was Greek in origin. The genus and species name for Willow Ptarmigan, Lagopus, means “hare-footed” in Greek, a reference to the heavily feathered feet and toes.
- Willow Ptarmigan tend to play with one another when in groups. One bird often starts the play by extending and bobbing the head, then jumping around willy-nilly, flapping the wings alternately. Other birds join in, doing similar antics, which may sharpen motor skills or increase cohesion of the social group, as it does in some mammals.
- The subspecies of Willow Ptarmigan living in Great Britain (scoticus) is known as the Red Grouse. It does molt but does not change its plumage colors in the winter, instead remaining reddish brown throughout the year. The subspecies in western Norway (variegatus) and the one in the Kazakh Steppe (maior) also stay brown all year.
- The Willow Ptarmigan is the only grouse in the world in which the male regularly helps raise the young. Pairs remain together from the beginning of the breeding season until their chicks are independent, a period of up to 7 months.