Bird Profile: The White-tailed Ptarmigan

From All About Birds; Illustrations by Bartels Science Illustrator Jen Lobo
January 9, 2020
White-tailed Ptarmigan in winter plumage, illustrations by Bartels Science Illustrator Jen LoboA White-tailed Ptarmigan in winter plumage. Illustrations by Bartels Science Illustrator Jen Lobo.

From the Winter 2020 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Ptarmigan are specialized grouse that go into ghost mode for winter, changing out their brown feathers for white ones so they can disappear into their snowy surroundings. Ptarmigan are the only birds in the world that turn white in winter. The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the smallest of the three ptarmigan species, and the smallest grouse in North America.

All three species of ptarmigan in North America (White-tailed, Willow, and Rock Ptarmigan) live in alpine and tundra habitats that get deep snow. To help them get around, ptarmigan grow feathers on the bottoms of their feet that both insulate and increase the surface area, acting like built-in, cozy snowshoes. White-tailed Ptarmigan lead a very sedentary lifestyle in winter, often conserving precious energy by roosting in snowbanks.

Find This Bird: In the Mountain West, good places to try your luck finding ptarmigan are  Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Mount Rainier National Park in Washington (watch this video about a search for White-tailed Ptarmigan on Mount Rainier, by one of our photographers). eBird sightings also indicate that Jasper National Park in Alberta is a White-tailed Ptarmigan hot spot.

White-tailed Ptarmigan range map from Ptarmigan range map from eBird.
A White-tailed Ptarmigan in summer plumage.A White-tailed Ptarmigan in summer plumage. Illustration by Bartels Science Illustrator Jen Lobo.

Cool Facts

subscribe to Living Bird magazine
  • The plural of ptarmigan, originally a Scottish Gaelic word, is ptarmigan.
  • The White-tailed Ptarmigan leads a very sedentary lifestyle in winter, conserving precious energy by avoiding flight and often roosting in snow banks.
  • Warm weather may stress the White-tailed Ptarmigan. It can be seen bathing in snow when the temperature is higher than 21° C (70° F).

Need Bird ID Help? Try Merlin