White-tailed Ptarmigan, Lagopus leucura

The White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) is the smallest bird in the grouse family. It is found in the mountains of western United States, Canada and Alaska. This is an alpine species, a permanent resident of the high mountains above the timberline throughout most of the year. Its habitat is open country and can be found in flight more often than the forest grouse, but still prefers running to flying. Its range is from Alaska to northern New Mexico, and has been introduced in a number of mountain ranges on the west coast.

The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the smallest of the ptarmigans. It is 11.8 to 12.2 inches long at adulthood, with the male being slightly larger than the female. Its average weight is around 11.6 to 16.9 ounces. This bird is pure white in winter plumage except for a black beak and eyes. Summer plumage consists of a mottled and brownish head, breast, and back. The wings, belly and tail remain white. They are the only ptarmigan with no black on the tail. It makes a soft, low hoot with low clucking noises.

This is the only bird in the alpine zone that remains there during the winter, instead of migrating. It has feathers around its nostrils so the air that it breathes in is warm before it reaches its body. The white feathers in winter provide excellent camouflage from predators and hunting.

The winter food of the White-tailed Ptarmigan is primarily willow buds. Alpine areas lacking in willow cannot support ptarmigan for long. In springtime, the leaves and flowers of several forbs are taken, but willow remains an important part of its diet. In summer, broods may also feed on insects and bulbils of knotweed.

Males return from wintering areas to establish territories on spruce-willow timberline breeding grounds in April. Females arrive in early May and pairs are formed. The female lays four to eight buff, faintly spotted eggs in a hollow on the ground lined with a small amount of grass, leaves and feathers. The males remain with the females until the eggs hatch. Incubation period lasts about 23 days.

Image Caption: White-tailed Ptarmigan, Rocky Mountains, Alberta. Credit: John Hill / Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0)