Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan

Common Name: Willow Ptarmigan
Also referred to as: Alaska Ptarmigan, Arctic Grouse, Red Grouse, Willow Grouse, Willow Partridge
Genus species: Lagopus lagopus
Recognized subspecies: L. l. albus (Gmelin), L. l. alascensis, L. l. ungavus, L. l. leucopterus, L. l.alleni, L. l. muriei
Family: Phasianidae
Order: Galliformes

General Description:

  • Total length: Adults, 356-432 mm
  • Wing chord length: Adult male, 182-216mm; adult female, 168-214 mm
  • Tail: Adult male, 108-35 mm; adult female, 94-139 mm
  • Weight: 430-810 g, depending on time of year.
  • The largest of North America’s three species of Ptarmigan.
  • Feet are feathered to the tips of their toes in the winter and to the base of their toes in summer.
  • The plumage of both sexes blends with the dominant colours of the surroundings and varies throughout the year.
  • Basic winter plumage for adults is almost completely white (except for black rectrices, which are often concealed by the long coverts).
  • Males have red eye combs (most visible in spring) and during spring and summer, the head, neck, and upper breast are rusty hazel to chestnut, and feathers at the base of the bill and chin are whitish. Rump, back, scapulars, and upper tail are mixed blacks, browns, and white. Wings are white.
  • Female summer plumage includes upper parts patterned with white, buffs, and blacks. Under parts are barred with black; wings are mostly white. Females have eye combs (not as large as those of males).


North American Distribution:

  • Breeding range of this Ptarmigan includes the arctic tundra, alpine mountain ranges, and in tundra-like areas of the boreal forest. Breeding range extends through much of Alaska, east through Banks Island, southern Melville and southern Bathurst Island, southern Baffin Island, Prince of Wales Island, southeast Aleutian Island, northern and central British Columbia, northeast Manitoba, northern Ontario, northern and central Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland.
  • Winter range extends south to central Alberta and Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, central Ontario, and southern Quebec.
  • Breeding range in Alberta is the northern part of Jasper National Park, extending south to Tonquin Valley (may extend north to the Kakwa area, southwest of Grande Prairie).

Habitat Description:

  • Winter habitat consists of clumps of willow (Salix spp.) along streams, fringe areas of burns, muskegs, and river/lake margins. Often prefers greater vegetative cover, which provides increased thermal benefits and reduces snow hardening (facilitates digging snow burrows).
  • Breeding range is primarily located in subarctic or subalpine areas. Attributes of these areas may be dense patches of shrub (willow and birch [Betula spp.]), open tundra, forests edges, and marsh areas. Males often establish territories in shrubby, more open vegetation.
  • Nesting and brooding habitat often includes areas with low vegetation and patches of shrubs for escape cover and riparian areas along marshes and streams.

Movements and Migratory Habits:

  • Migration between summer and winter ranges occurs in many populations. Distance of migrations can range from 20 to 800 km.
  • Migration to wintering range may begin from late September to mid December, with movements back to the breeding range occurring from mid January to late April.
  • Wintering ground is often at lower latitudes than breeding and summer range.
  • Flock formation occurs in the winter.
  • Snow-roosting will often begin in the fall when sufficient snowpack is available. This behaviour will continue well into early spring.
  • This ptarmigan is diurnal (often most active in the morning and at dusk) and commonly roosts through the night.

Diet and Foraging Strategy:

  • Winter diet may include buds, twigs, and catkins of willow, birch, blueberry and bog cranberry (Vaccinium spp.).
  • Winter foraging often occurs in short bouts of synchronous feeding at first light and at dark.
  • Summer diet may include leaves, buds, berries, twigs, seeds, and catkins. Plants utilized for forage may be willow, birch, crowberry (Empetrum spp.), horsetails (Equisetum spp.), and blueberry and bog cranberry.
  • Chicks may feed on sedge and rush seed heads, willow leaves, hair moss (Distichium spp.), and insects.


  • Males often arrive on territories from mid March to early May, and females arrive about two weeks after (pairs form at this time). Variations in time of pairing may be related to temperature and snow cover.
  • Male courtship displays includes tail- fanning (fully spread tail often flicking the tail rapidly), may lower wings with primaries scraping along the ground at the same time, the male may move in slight curves in front of the female (U-walk) and/or circle the female closely (waltzing). Another display is “rapid-stamping,” in which the male runs (short, rapid steps) toward the female with his head held low, beak open, tail slightly fanned, and his neck thickened and arched.
  • Willow Ptarmigan are usually monogamous.
  • Nests are scraped out bowls on the ground, usually with lateral and overhead cover from shrubs, grass, and/or forbs. Nests are often lined with grass, leaves, and feathers.
  • Diameter of the nest ranges from 15-20 cm and depth ranges from 8-16 cm.
  • Eggs are short and oval, with an average size being 43 x 31 mm.
  • Egg colour is often a cream background with dark brown blotches.
  • Female lays approximately 1.1 eggs/day, and clutch size can range from 7 to 10 eggs.
  • Incubation takes approximately 22 days.
  • Only the female incubates, but males usually remain with the female during the incubation period and assist in brood defence.
  • Female can renest if nest attempt fails.
  • Synchronous hatch; chicks are precocial and leave the nest 3-10 hours after hatch.
  • Periods of foraging and exploration are interrupted by periods of brooding to help chicks maintain normal body temperature.
  • Brood dispersal may occur from early September to October.

Conservation Status:

  • Federal: Not listed.
  • Provincial: Secure.

References Willow Ptarmigan photo © 2006 Suzann Julien. Retrieved from www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-2384628-ptarmigan-summer-plumage.php on 22/09/09. Used with permission.

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD). 2008. Search species and status category: Willow Ptarmigan. http://www.srd.gov.ab.ca/fishwildlife/speciesatrisk/statusofalbertawildspecies/search.aspx Accessed 29 May 2009.

Bergerud, A. T. and M. W. Gratson. 1988. Adaptive strategies and population ecology of northern grouse, Volume 1. Population studies. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

Bergerud, A. T. and E. W. Mercer. 1972. Spring foods of willow ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus alleni in southeastern Newfoundland. Oikos 23: 213-217.

Federation of Alberta Naturalists. 2007. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Alberta: A Second Look. Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Hannon, S. J., P. K. Eason, and K. Martin. 1998. Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved May 26 2009, from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/369 doi:10.2173/bna.369

Johnsgard, P.A. 1973. Grouse and Quails of North America. The University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.