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Fowls and Pheasants: Phasianidae

Willow Ptarmigan (lagopus Lagopus): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: Small grouse weighing 0.9 to 1.8 pounds (0.4 to 0.8 kilograms) and measuring 14 to 17 inches (36 to 43 centimeters). Males have a rust-colored head and upperparts and a bright red "comb" over the eyes that is larger in spring and summer. Females are a little smaller than males, and both sexes are completely white in winter except for a black tail. Feet are covered in feathers, which helps them walk on snow.

Geographic range: The willow ptarmigan (TAR-mih-gun) is found in northern Asia and Europe, from Alaska into Canada.

Habitat: This bird prefers the tundra (treeless plain of arctic and subarctic regions) and the forest's edge as well as moist areas like pond edges and arctic valleys. Likes willow trees.

Diet: This species eats flowers, buds, and insects in the summer, willow and birch buds and twigs in winter, and berries in the fall.

Behavior and reproduction: Willow ptarmigans often sleep in snowbanks in winter, which they get to by flying, rather than walking, so as not to leave tracks for predators to follow. They live in large groups of both sexes in winter. Males are territorial in the spring and vocalize to set boundaries.

The willow ptarmigan is monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; having just one mate) and each pair has its own territory. Nesting starts anywhere from April to June, depending on the latitude. The female lays eight to eleven eggs and incubates them for twenty-two days. Males keep newly hatched chicks warm. Chicks fly at the age of ten to twelve days. Families stay together until the fall.

Willow ptarmigans are hunted by foxes, martens, lynx, and wolves.

Willow ptarmigans are reddish during the summer, and turn white for the winter, except for a black tail. The colors help them blend in with their environment during the different seasons. (© JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission.)

Willow ptarmigans and people: Popular hunting birds in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia. Hunted in the United States and managed so that populations are sustainable. The willow ptarmigan is the Alaska state bird, and is the focus of stories, toys, and art in arctic cultures.

Conservation status: This bird is not threatened. ∎

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsFowls and Pheasants: Phasianidae - Behavior And Reproduction, Fowls And Pheasants And People, Wild Turkey (meleagris Gallopavo): Species Accounts - PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS, GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, DIET, CONSERVATION STATUS