Willow Ptarmigan

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

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.


Denali Alaska, ptarmigan

Denali NP, Alaska. Site where we found the ptarmigan.

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.


Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska

Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska

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.



Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska

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.


Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan in winter. Photo: Robert McDonald. Courtesy kidzone.ws.

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.

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus distribution in North America map.png

Lagopus lagopus distribution, North America. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus distribution in Europe map.png

Lagopus lagopus distribution Europe and east. Courtesy Wikipedia.




55 thoughts on “Willow Ptarmigan

  1. Although I am familiar with the Red Grouse I have never heard of this bird, and what an amazing creature it is….Talk about adaptable, something we humans need to hone up on. As well as it’s adaptability I like the look of this bird, there’s something very sweet about it. Thank you Jet for all this amazing information. Hope you enjoy a lovely weekend….janet:)

    • The red grouse and the willow ptarmigan are the same bird species, though the RG has slightly different coloring and doesn’t change seasonally. They were once classified differently, but not anymore. And yes, there is something really sweet about them. I am glad you enjoyed today’s post, Janet. I so appreciate your kind words and continued visits…you, too, have a happy weekend.

  2. “The heavily feathered feet act as snowshoes, allowing the birds to walk over fresh snow drifts. The plumage is thick and holds in warmth.”

    That’s fascinating how nature adapts creatures to different climates, it never ceases to amaze me.

    • It is truly fascinating, Genie. And game birds are on the heavy side for birds, but these ptarmigans can still walk on snow without sinking. Thank you so much for your warm visit.

  3. Beautiful and informative post, Jet! I have seen this well camouflaged bird in Finland in my youth. They are ‘walkers’ and don’t like to fly, other than a few yards, preferably downhill 🙂

    • I think so too, Cindy! In past ages their species had been mis-classified because they didn’t know the white bird was the same as the brown one. Many thanks, as always~~

    • They were friendly, actually, and not very skittish. They hid under the brush when we first came near, but then they came out and did their own thing. Thanks for your fun comment, Jan.

  4. Very intriguing in light of our recent hike to Ptarmigan Cirque! According to the map these lovelies aren’t there but perhaps their cousins as that is what the area is named for. Their fluffy lower legs make me think they have their long underwear and Sorrel boots reading for the snow to arrive. Currently snowing here and I wish I had some fluffy feathers on, or maybe just big boots. 🙂

    • When I read your Ptarmigan Cirque post, Sue, of course that was my first thought, wondering if there were ptarmigan there. I am sure there are one of the 3 species there, because it’s their habitat. BTW A wk or so after I learned about the Larch tree from that post, it came up in a crossword puzzle and I knew right away the answer. ha. Your winters come early there…snow already. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, Sue.

    • Hi John. It’s a memorable name with the “pt” beginning, so I am not surprised you had heard of them. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, appreciate your comment.

  5. Pretty incredible and incredibly pretty! What a wonderful bird, and I enjoyed reading about the adaptations – remarkable.
    A game bird crossed our path a couple of weeks ago out in the mountains. It wasn’t the least bit bothered by us, wandering along just ahead of us before disappearing into the brush. I snapped a photo or two (not Athena standard!) so maybe I’ll include it in a future post and you could confirm the species?!
    Thanks, Jet, for another lovely post!

    • Oh wouldn’t it be fun if it was a ptarmigan, pc? It’s probably a grouse of some kind. I’m happy to give it a try, and you’re also welcome to email me. My thanks, as always, for your wonderful comment and attentiveness. And my best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving weekend, my friend. I am thankful for you and Mrs. Pc.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Bill. That scene we were pretty vigilant, had to climb down into the riverbed. lol. Now that I think of it, that might explain why there was no one else down there. ha. Always enjoy your visits, and they are much appreciated.

    • This makes me very happy, Carol. I know you will enjoy it. Next month you are invited to read the new Anne Lamington mystery, Golden Gate Graveyard. Feel free to write a review if it moves you. with special thanks, Jet.

    • Yes, how very cool to change colors twice a year and always be the color of the ground no matter what the season. I’m glad you liked the ptarmigan, Rommel. Many thanks!

  6. Quite a bird, indeed! One of our chickens (Cinnamon) has furry feet but I don’t think she’d be able to figure out how to walk on the snow — even if she was so inclined! ha Thanks, Jet.

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