With squat, rounded wings and a slight black bill, this stout bird resembles a chicken. Reaching 15 to 17 inches long, the willow ptarmigan is the biggest of the three species of ptarmigan. Males weigh in at just over one pound and females weigh a little less. The red comb above their eyes and the square tail that remains black all year distinguish this bird from other ptarmigan. Females, which are more gray-brown, display heavy breast and flank barring while mature males have brilliant red "eyebrows."
Thick feathers cover the willow ptarmigan’s legs and hide its nostrils to prevent snow from getting in. In autumn, ptarmigan also grow a solid clump of rigid feathers over their toes. These feather-covered feet act like snowshoes in winter, while their sharp, elongated claws assist the bird with crossing icy slopes. The snowy owl is the only other bird that is as well suited to survive unforgiving winters in the Arctic.
The ptarmigan’s plumage is in harmony with the colors dominating the landscape. In winter, ptarmigan are snowy white, but in late spring, they morph to piebald, a combination of summer brown and winter white. In summer, they turn deep tones of gray and brown, blending in with the ground. In fall, they turn speckled brown, white and gray before returning to a dazzling white in time for snow to cover the earth again.
Apparently conscious of their camouflage, they tend to gravitate toward surroundings that match their color so they can remain unnoticed by predators. For instance, white ptarmigan are extremely unwilling to travel across dark ground. Likewise, birds dressed in summer brown do their best to cross dark ground while circumventing snow patches. This strategy helps ptarmigan remain inconspicuous year-round, with the exception of spring when males fervently court females.
Willow ptarmigan favor summering sites in the tundra, the alpine tree line boundary and mountain slopes. In wintertime, the birds nest in willow trees and sheltered valleys. They inhabit most of their range during winter, and can be found roosting and feeding together during this time. Gathered in large numbers, the birds may migrate south. Ptarmigan are thought to be the most migratory species of upland game birds in North America.
Though willow ptarmigan spend the majority of time on the ground, if they are startled, they burst into strong, swift flight and can cover a mile prior to landing. Because snow provides excellent insulation from the cold and offers a place to hide from predators, ptarmigan prefer to sleep under the snow. For this reason, you may see a ptarmigan flying straight into a snow bank; if it were to walk, a predator, such as a fox, may be able to trace its tracks.
During winter months, willow ptarmigan consume the twigs, buds and catkins of trees such as birch and willow. During the summer, they feast on brightly-colored kinnikinnick berries, cranberries, crowberries and blueberries. They also eat seeds, as well as the flowering buds and supple leaves of birch, alder and willow trees. Nestlings will eat spiders and insects, including caterpillars and beetles.
Males guard their territories vigorously against other imposing cocks. They may fight over hens, lashing out and plucking feathers in a bloody combat. A male will make a show of clucking, strutting and burping next to a female, flashing the vivid scarlet of his serrated head combs. With quick, dainty steps, he follows her, showcasing the large black feathers in his fanned tail that stand in stark contrast with the snowy white of his body. Dragging wings flung stiffly out to either side, he abruptly soars into the sky. Giving a cry of enthusiastic, gurgling song, he drifts down to the female, completing his elaborate display.
Willow ptarmigan are generally polygamous, as cocks typically mating with a number of hens. After breeding, a female will make a nest by digging a shallow depression at the base of a shrub, mound, log or cluster of grass. She lines the nest with soft feathers and grass, hidden on the tundra or at the edge of a clearing. A willow ptarmigan cock will stay with a hen while she incubates their eggs, unlike other ptarmigan species. The male will guard the female and their young against predators such as gulls, foxes, weasels, owls and hawks. Keeping lookout from a nearby thicket, cocks will confront humans if they attempt to steal their chicks, and there is even record of a male attacking a curious brown bear!
Incubation lasts 21 to 22 days. Merely a week after hatching, chicks begin attempting flight, and will soon leave the nest. Father and mother care for their chicks until they are about 60 days old.
Photo Credit: Jeff Goldberg