White-tailed Ptarmigan

Common Name: White-tailed Ptarmigan
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Tetraonidae
Genus: Lagopus
Species: Lagopus leucrus

photo M. Noonan

White-tailed Ptarmigan Taxonomy/Description

The white-tailed ptarmigan belongs to the family, Tetraonidae, in the Avian Order Galliformes. Galliformes is the order of chicken-like birds. Tetraonidae is the prairie chicken, grouse and ptarmigan family. Some researchers regard Tetraonidae as a subfamily within Phasianidae, the quail, pheasant and partridge family. The white-tailed ptarmigan's scientific name is Lagopus leucrus. The generic name, lagopus, means "hare foot". This refers to the ptarmiganís feathered covered feet during the winter season. Its specific name, leucrus, means ďwhite tailĒ, referring to this speciesí white tail feathers.

Ptarmigans are the smallest species of North American grouse. At adulthood they weigh 13-15 oz and grow to one foot in length. They continual molt, for their coat color changes from white, to speckled brownish gray, to white again with the change of seasons. During the winter, the white-tailed ptarmigan is completely white. The animal is mottled gray and brown color throughout the spring, summer and fall. Males and females are similar in size and appearance, although male ptarmigans have more prominent red eyebrow combs during the breeding season.

White-tailed Ptarmigan Habitat/Diet

As the only ptarmigan species found south of Canada, the white-tailed ptarmiganís range extends from Alaska to New Mexico throughout the Rocky Mountains. The frigid North American tundra and alpine habitat are preferred by this species.

The ptarmigan is primarily herbivorous, eating leaves, buds, willow, berries and flowers. However, insects are also occasionally consumed. The summer climate is very supportive of such resources. During the winter, the ptarmigan is unable to forage on buds, berries, leaves, flowers and insects. Willow becomes an important food source. In fact, buds and twigs of willow become the white-tailed ptarmiganís only food source of the winter.

White-tailed Ptarmigan Behavior/Reproduction

photo M. Noonan

Ptarmiganís are well adapted to life in cold climates. Some of their behaviors are very energy efficient. Ptarmigans select dwellings and stormguards that are warmer in temperature than the outside environment. They also prefer to walk instead of fly, which preserves more energy as well. Winter flocks may contain more than fifty individuals. Ptarmigans have different calls to distinguish terrestrial mammalian predators, like fox and coyote, from aerial avian predators, like the golden eagle and prairie falcon.

Breeding season begins in the early spring. Males first display while the ptarmigans are still in the winter flock. Males will compete for females by defending a territory. Once a pair is established, they do not separate until the female lays her 4-7 eggs during June. The male moves to higher elevation while the female broods her young. The young are old enough to follow their mother to meet their father in his territory of higher elevation by late July. Ptarmigans are usually monogamous. Females breed at one year of age. Males remain near their birth territories while females disperse. The lifespan of this species is 3-5 years.


White-tailed Ptarmigan Conservation

This species of ptarmigan is not endangered. In fact, due its inaccessible habitat, which is also of little economic value to humans, the ptarmiganís historical range has been preserved. Human activities within the ptarmiganís range including mining and ski resort development have minor effects on the ptarmiganís environmental status.

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.