(pronounced "tar'-mi-gen" )

a Willow Ptarmigan
willow ptarmigan,
image credit - Jean-Guy Dallaire ,; license - Creative Commons
The ptarmigan is a member of the grouse family. It has a chunky body with a short legs and tail, small wings, and is about the size of a small chicken. Two kinds of ptarmigans live in the Arctic - the Rock Ptarmigan and the Willow Ptarmigan. The Rock Ptarmingan lives in rocky areas. The Willow Ptarmigan lives where there is more shelter. It is larger than the Rock Ptarmigan and has a heavier bill.

The ptarmigan is adapted to the cold climate and stays in the Arctic all year round. It is completely covered with feathers even the feet. The feathers on the feet make it able to walk on soft snow without sinking. The thick outer feathers keep out the snow and wind. The inner feathers (down) trap the heat. ( a ptarmigan's foot )

The ptarmigan's thick coat of feathers help to keep it warm.
ptarmigan in the snow, flickr
image from license - Creative Commons

A white winter coat matches the snow. The bird moults several times a year. Each new set of feathers matches the tundra. This makes it hard for the enemies ( foxes, wolves, lynx, owls ) to see it. In spring the feathers are brown, black and yellow with white blotches.

image credit: George Lessard;; license - Creative Commons

The brown speckled summer coat matches the plants, rocks and soil. (photo)

In the summer the ptarmigan feeds mainly on leaves, buds, flowers and berries, but also eats mosses, insects and spiders. During the winter they feed on buds, seeds and twigs of low bushes.

In the late spring the female lays up to ten eggs in a nest on the ground. The nest is lined with grasses, lichens, leaves and feathers. The spotted and blotchy eggs are hard to see. Soon after the chicks hatch they leave the nest to look for food. By autumn the young are nearly adult size.

willow ptarmigan on nest, Kevin Pietrzak, flickr willow ptarmigan eggs, Kevin Pietrzak, flickr
image credit - Kevin Pietrzak ;; license - Creative Commons

In the fall these birds form large flocks and constantly move about looking for food. In the winter they feed and rest in the snow close together. They may migrate in search of food.

Ptarmigans are a source of food to the people of the North.

The Willow Ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska.

The Rock Ptarmigan is Nunavut's official bird. In the winter they are white except for some black feathers on the tail. They have a black stripe from behind each eye which extends to the bill.

The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the smallest of the three species of ptarmigan in North America. It prefers to live in high altitudes. In Canada it is found in the mountains of Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta. It also lives in the state of Alaska.


INDEX - Web Pages for Students

July 2009
updated August 2011

information - ptarmigan fact sheets Hinterland Who's Who , Canadian Wildlife Service
"ptarmigan's foot" adapted from an image by Tim Bowman , USFWS, license: public domain