Learning about the smallest member of the grouse family the ptarmigan
Ptarmigan are some of the smallest species in the grouse family, yet their charm and mystique loom larger than life. They often require a rugged alpine adventure just to find them, with most species occurring in boreal regions. But the white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) is a little more approachable for most of us – if you can call steep climbs upwards of 10,000 feet approachable. They may occasionally overlap ranges with the blue grouse, but for the most part occur where other ptarmigan (e.g., rock, willow, etc.) live. Here is some more information about the only ptarmigan that regularly occurs in the lower 48 states.
Description and Life History of the White-Tailed Ptarmigan
The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family in North America, smaller even than closely related ptarmigan species (All About Birds 2019). Both genders are small, plump birds with a short tail and bill, weighing less than a pound (NatureServe 2019). Their feathers blend in seamlessly with the rocky habitats in which they occur. The females are barred with a brown and black pattern and have a slightly yellow-cream color filling the gaps. Breeding males are mottled brown and gray with a white underside and a red eyebrow (called a “comb”) (All About Birds 2019). True to their name, these birds have white tail feathers throughout most of the year. However, both males and females turn entirely white during the winter so that they nearly disappear into their snowy habitats. Their toes are feathered as well, perhaps to better insulate them and to serve as snowshoes (All About Birds 2019).
Males will aggressively defend territories in the breeding season. During courtship rituals, they raise their red combs and proceed to strut and bow for the female with their tails fanned (National Audubon Society 2019; All About Birds 2019). After mating, the females will make a small depression in the ground or find a natural one among the rocks, lining it with plant material and feathers. The female typically lays 2 to 8 light brown eggs and incubates them for 22 to 26 days (National Audubon Society 2019; NatureServe 2019). When the precocial chicks hatch, they are able to follow their parents and feed themselves immediately, and they can fly at 10 days. The broods generally stay together until the following spring.
Adult white-tailed ptarmigan forage for vegetation on the ground, including buds, catkins, fruits, leaves, twigs and seeds. They seem to prefer the twigs and buds of willow, birch, alder, spruce, pine and fir, but will also consume herbaceous vegetation such as sedges, dryad, and clover (National Audubon Society 2019; NatureServe 2019; Hoffman 2006). The chicks survive mostly on insects because of their high protein content.
Although natural predators are sparse in such high-elevation, alpine environments, females have a good backup plan in place. When their broods are threatened by a predator, the female will try to distract it by running around and flapping its wings, leading it away from the nest (National Audubon Society 2019). They rely mostly on their amazingly well-camouflaged feathers or on rock formations to hide from predators, which include prairie falcons, golden eagles, weasels, coyotes, red foxes, marten, common ravens and mountain lions (Hoffman 2006).
Range and Habitat of the White-Tailed Ptarmigan
The white-tailed ptarmigan, like most ptarmigan species, is no stranger to the northern boreal region. It survives across northwest and western Canada and coastal Alaska, down through most of British Columbia (NatureServe 2019). But it also occurs in the lower 48, primarily including the high Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Montana, or the Cascade Mountains in Washington. Some populations have been introduced to other states with high elevation habitats, including Utah and California.
White-tailed ptarmigan prefer to live in high elevation habitats, including alpine meadows, rocky slopes, or talus/scree fields – similar to the Himalayan snowcock of Nevada. During the summer, they typically live at higher elevations or alpine meadows near water (streams, melting snow, below glaciers). In the winter, they travel downslope near the tree line where they can access willow and alder tree limbs above the snow (NatureServe 2019; National Audubon Society 2019). In general though, most white-tailed ptarmigan live above the tree line year-round.
Conservation Issues for the White-Tailed Ptarmigan
The white-tailed ptarmigan population is globally secure and listed as of Least Concern (NatureServe 2019). The global breeding population is estimated to be approximately two million birds, with about 28 percent occurring in the United States and 73 percent in Canada (All About Birds 2019).
For the most part, human development and disturbance in alpine areas is limited, which has maintained habitat structures and processes for the white-tailed ptarmigan. Grazing of livestock such as sheep and goats, recreational activities including skiing, snowshoeing and off-road vehicles, and development of ski areas may all impact this species on localized levels (Hoffman 2006). The white-tailed ptarmigan may also be threatened by climate change due to the habitats in which they occur. For example, a warming climate could shift tree lines further upslope (shrink habitat) or stress the birds since they are not adapted for warmer weather (Hoffman 2006). Hunting is not likely a significant source of their mortality, given the challenge of finding and taking them.
Hunting Opportunities for the White-Tailed Ptarmigan
As you read above, about three quarters of the white-tailed ptarmigan population occurs in Canada, and much of the U.S. population lies in Alaska. However, there are still opportunities in the lower 48, as well. Colorado is a stronghold for this species, occurring at elevations up to 14,000 feet (National Audubon Society 2019). Here are a few states where you can pursue the white-tailed ptarmigan. In many cases, there are various hunting units where the seasons or possession limits change, and you may also need a separate hunting permit.
|Alaska||August 1-June 15, variable units||10-100 birds|
|California||September 8-September 16||2 birds (per season)|
|Colorado||September 8-November 18||6 birds|
|Utah||August 25-October 31||12 birds|
*Season dates and possession limits vary by hunting units
Hunting white-tailed ptarmigan is physically and mentally demanding. Most populations are located in remote, hard-to-access areas with significant climbs to reach them. Once you arrive, you could face a long day of navigating ankle-twisting rocks in a low-oxygen environment. Altitude sickness is a serious concern if you’re not used to the conditions. And these birds have excellent camouflage – as in, look right at them and not see them. Practice ahead of your hunting trip by studying pictures of ptarmigan against rocky backgrounds. It should help you develop a mental image of what to key in on.
A 20- or 28-gauge is a good shotgun to bring on a ptarmigan hunt since these birds are small and you will be walking a lot in some challenging areas. Every ounce counts in those situations, and carrying a heavy 12-gauge is unnecessary. If possible, bring a hunting dog or hunting partner to increase your odds for success. This ptarmigan prefers to hide first from predators and then run to escape. It usually only resorts to flying when they are directly confronted, which is an energy-saving tactic. As such, it might help to have your dog or a buddy move in and flush the birds.
Hunting these birds is a true adventure that will test you. But the scenery you will experience and the thrill of actually finding a ptarmigan is worth it all.
All About Birds. 2019. White-Tailed Ptarmigan. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-tailed_Ptarmigan/lifehistory
Hoffman, R.W. 2006. White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura): a technical conservation assessment. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Accessed at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5182070.pdf
National Audubon Society. 2019. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/white-tailed-ptarmigan
NatureServe. 2019. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.