The willow ptarmigan is a short, stocky game bird in the grouse family. They reside in open tundra and arctic conditions in both the eastern and western hemispheres.
See maps below.
Each year they molt twice. In summer they are mottled brown or gray, in winter they are white. This gives them camouflage in all seasons.
Ground birds are vulnerable, so their camouflage is a handy natural defense. They can also fly to escape predators (fox, eagles).
The state bird of Alaska, willow ptarmigan are not found elsewhere in the United States; but are found in many of the Canadian provinces, and other parts of the world.
There are only three species of ptarmigan in the world, and Denali is home to all of them: willow, rock, and white-tailed.
In Great Britain, Lagopus lagopus are referred to as the Red Grouse; there they do not change seasonal coats.
Primarily vegetarian, willow ptarmigan feed on willow, alder, birch, berries, and some insects. Wikipedia overview here.
A successful species, the willow ptarmigan (pronounced with a silent “p”) is widespread with an estimated global population of 50 million.
You will only see them, however, in the northern hemisphere.
The heavily feathered feet act as snowshoes, allowing the birds to walk over fresh snow drifts. The plumage is thick and holds in warmth.
We came across these willow ptarmigan in Denali National Park where they blended in perfectly.
There was no one around and the birds were barely visible; but we were on the lookout for them, and had a heyday here. I was very happy because they were a “lifer” for me.
They lay their eggs in shallow ground depressions, and in winter will burrow into snow drifts to sleep.
A furry-footed bird that effortlessly changes colors with the seasons, sleeps in snow drifts, and has built-in snowshoes. Pretty incredible.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.