Everything to know about Ptarmigan

Birds are the most underrated creatures on our planet. We always cease to restrict our knowledge to mechanisms adopted by bigger organisms. However, having a closer look at birds can actually take us a step near to nature and the scientific realm. It helps us understand the complexities of fauna from a newer perspective. One such bird is the Ptarmigan. 


One whose kingdom is Animalia, Phylum is Chordata, Class is Aves, and Lagopus is the genus, is none other than a Ptarmigan, something that it is commonly known as across the world. They live in tundra regions and are widely famous for their unique ability to flap their wings rapidly in order to demarcate their territory and establish their autonomy. 

To gain deeper insights into the life of a Ptarmigan bird, keep reading. 

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Ptarmigan Meaning

A Ptarmigan meaning can be simply understood as a bird that constitutes three living species with innumerable subspecies. Although they belong to the genus Lagopus of the grouse family, they largely differ from this family because of their feather-covered toes. 


Ptarmigans adopt different techniques to survive the harshness of their surroundings. Sometimes they change their color, at other times they hibernate. Yet, at other times they resort to eating plants and insects to fulfil their nutritional needs. 


Species of Ptarmigan 

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The three listed species of Ptarmigan bird are all secondary cold region specialists, who are hardy vegetarians. Let us have a deeper look at all these three species. 

  • Willow Ptarmigan

Lagopus lagopus, better known as Willow Ptarmiganis one of the three species of Ptarmigan, belonging to the grouse subfamily Tetraonanie. It is also known by different names in different regions. The Irish and British call it the red grouse, whereas it is also otherwise known as the willow grouse.


Alaska, a US state, claims Willow Ptarmigan to be its state bird. It is one of the most commonly found species of the Ptarmiganbird. 


The physical description of both male and female Willow Ptarmigans remains similar, especially in size. It is about 14-17 inches long (35-45 cm), weighing approximately 430 to 810 grams (15 to 29 oz). In addition, it has an average wingspan ranging from 60 and 65 centimeters (24 and 26 in). 


It has a variety of subspecies. Some of them are- hibernicus, scotia, lagopus, rossicus, birulai, albus, alleni, variegatus, and serebrowski amongst others. 

  • Rock Ptarmigan

Also known as the Lagopus muta, Rock Ptarmiganbelongs to the grouse family, and is famous as being a medium-sized game bird. 


The physical specifications of a Rock Ptarmigan expectedly surprising. It is about 13-14 inches (35 cm) long and has a 3.1 inches (8 cm) long tail. An average rock Ptarmigan weighs around 15.5-22.6 oz (440-640 g) with a wingspan of 21-24 inches (55-61 cm). 


The Rock Ptarmiganis capable of camouflaging itself seasonally in winters, summers, spring, and the fall. A major part of Icelandic cuisine is the Rock Ptarmiganmeat. It is derived from hunting in the region of Iceland that is legal, allowed, and celebrated. 


They feed on varied sources, largely determined by the region they live in. In winters, aspen buds, dwarf birch, and willow buds, and catkins are consumed in the state of Alaska. During spring, they transit their diet to crowberries and vaccinium. 


Sex differences can be seen in the sounds and displays of Rock Ptarmigans. While females prefer to remain quieter, males emit a rattling and snoring sound throughout. 

  • White-tailed Ptarmigan

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The smallest bird in the grouse family, White-tailed Ptarmigan, also known as Lagopus leucura is a permanent resident of the high altitudes. It is believed to be also known as the snow quail. It has a surprisingly different physical description than other species of the Ptarmiganbird. 


It is round in its stature, with spherical wings, a square-ended tail, and small legs. Males are slightly larger than females.  They are 11.8 to 12.2 inches (30 to 31 cm) long and have a weight of about 11.6 to 16.9 ounces (330 to 480 g). 


Along with being the smallest of all the species, the White-tailed Ptarmiganis also the quietest of all of them. However, you can occasionally see them making low-pitched sounds and voices. Their nutritional intake varies according to the season. Nitrogen is extracted from snow buttercup leaves in spring, while summers witness them feeding on flowers, plants, leaves, berries, and lichens. Finally, in winters, the White-tailed Ptarmigans rely on pine needles, seeds, willow, and alder buds and twigs as being their primary food sources. 


How Many Names are Too Many Names?

Commonly known as the Ptarmigan, the name of this bird is not limited to just this one. Rather, it changes with different regions. In Canada and the UK, this bird is known as the Rock Ptarmigan. Moving to the United States, Snow Chicken is the better-known name for Ptarmiganthere. The Japanese call it Raicho, meaning a thunderbird. 


Additionally, an alternative to Ptarmigan all over the world is Lagopus and is widely used in replacement with this word. Further, the bird has about 3 unique species, each of them with different names. 


P-T-A-R-M-I-G-A-N, Were We Pronouncing it Right?

Ptarmigan, with a silent P, that’s how we say it! It turns out that we were doing it right the whole time. However, the addition of the initial P was a complete mistake. This fact is backed by an interesting story.


According to a recent revelation, the word Ptarmiganoriginated from a Scottish Gaelic word tàrmachan, meaning croaker. In the 1500s, this word was inoculated into the English language and was spelt without a P until the Early Modern Era. 


Writers of the early 17th century became obsessed with the word and in their research, they wrongly presumed the word to have its origin from the Greek word pteron. Inspired to create a Greek scientific name, they added a P at the beginning of this word, making it Ptarmigan as we know it. 

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Ptarmigan is the official bird of multiple territories. One of them is the Nunavut territory of Canada. In the country, Ptarmiganis better known as the Rock Ptarmigan. 


Interestingly, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, claim Ptarmigan to be their official game bird. 


In the year 1955, Ptarmigan was also adopted as the official state bird of Alaska, in the US state. Willow Ptarmiganis the common name of Ptarmiganin the aforementioned state. 


To our surprise, the tale does not end here. The Japanese are very protective of Ptarmigan, which they call Raicho (meaning thunderbird)  in their country. The Japanese prefecture of Honshu, Toyama sees Ptarmigans as their official bird and seems to be very proud of it. 


The Colour Changing Birds

Nature has provided Ptarmigans with a unique ability to change colors amidst changing seasons. This ability is used to outwit predators and defend their living status. They use the mechanism of camouflaging and blending in with the color of the season in order to escape the harsh phenomena of the universe. 


In the winter season, the bird turns extremely white, to match the surrounding snow. Whereas in spring, Ptarmigans grow new feathers of brown and/ or golden color, after they lose their feathers or molt them. As the fall (autumn season) comes, the feathers are magically faded to the color of greyish brown. 


Herbivores or Not?

Herbivores are those animals/ birds/ living organisms that depend on plants for their survival. That is, they only eat plants and plant products to sustain life on earth. The preference of Ptarmigan is ambiguous in the sense that they eat mostly plants and plant products like willows, berries, buds, and flowers. At extreme times, they also Scarpe at snow for reaching and eating the moss growing at a lower surface level. 


However, occasionally Ptarmigans also consume small insects when the plant sources are not easily available. It is usually the case in winters. All in all, they are ground feeders, similar to chickens. 


Meet the Social Beings

Ptarmigans are social animals, not much like us humans, but yeah, they prefer moving in flocks and staying together. In the times of migration, Ptarmigans collect together as a group (you can imagine hundreds of them) and start their journey collectively. 


To protect and defend themselves, they number together too. They do not believe in leaving their mates alone in difficult times. However, sometimes these groups can differ on the basis of their varying sex differences and during breeding seasons too. 


In the spring season, males prefer to bring their social side out (can be evidenced by their harsh crackling calls), whereas they refrain from doing so in the adjoining seasons and territories. 


Mating Rituals 

At six months, Ptarmigans attain the stage of sexual maturity. Male ptarmigans are not very different from human beings when it comes to this ritual. They display affection towards their female companions and show aggression towards other males, by using their combs. 


The ability of Ptarmigans to change their color is restricted in males during the mating season. When it is spring, they are unable to shed their feathers and are easy to spot from miles away. Further, the mating tactics employed by the male Ptarmigan depend on the reproductive condition of his mating partner. 

The female Ptarmiganis closely guarded by its partner during the receptive period. 

Ptarmigan, like birds, are one of the most beautiful creations of nature. With three species and numerous subspecies, Ptarmigans are very popular amongst the population of the tundra region. An idea of their popularity is evident by the status attained by them of an ‘official bird’ by varied provinces, states, and countries. 


There are a lot of facts attached with Ptarmigan and they are useful in revealing greater information about animals belonging to the same genus, and perhaps the kingdom. This field continues to attract researchers, and palaeontologists to study more about the subject in concern, and yield relevant results. 

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q1. What is the Total Number of Ptarmigans in the World and Do They Fly?

Fortunately, the population of Ptarmigans, a superficial resource to the wildlife, is greater than expected. According to contemporary estimates, the worldwide population of Ptarmigans rounds off to more than a good 8 million individuals. 


Yes. Ptarmigans have the ability to fly, but they use it scarcely. Belonging to a region where food is negligible, Ptarmigans rarely fly since it takes more energy, which in turn demands more food. Instead, they resort to methods of conserving their energy, favorably by staying on the ground and not moving around much. 

Q2. Where Can a Ptarmigan Bird be Found?

A Ptarmigan can be seen in many important areas of the world. The most number of them can be found in isolated regions of the world like the Arctic. A Ptarmiganbird is likely to be seen in the local suburbs of the Arctic and subarctic regions of North America and Greenland. 


The mountains of the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Urals, the Altay Mountains, Japan, and Scotland are also native places of a Ptarmigan. Conclusively, South Georgia, New Zealand, the Kerguelen, and the Crozet Islands have also been recently witnessed to be the new homes for Ptarmigans. 

Q3. What is the Most Popular Species of Ptarmigan? Can they be Eaten?

The most common, and therefore the most popular, species of a Ptarmigan bird are known as common ptarmigan, also known as rock Ptarmiganin Europe, North America, and the British Isles, and Willow Ptarmigan(willow grouse) in the lowlands. 


Ptarmigans are both hunted and naturally fed upon. Some of the natural predators of Ptarmigans include owls, foxes, ermines, arctic skuas, glaucous gulls, golden eagles, and lynch. Though they adopt extraordinary survival techniques, they do not remain safe every time. 


According to research, it is not only safe but also healthy to eat Ptarmigans. Additionally, it is legal to hunt Ptarmigans in many regions of the world, like Iceland, Alaska, and Canada to name a few.