Rock ptarmigan

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Rock ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus Muta).jpg
A pair in spring plumage in Norway
Display song, Glenshee, Scotland
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Phasianidae
Genus: Lagopus
L. muta
Binomial name
Lagopus muta
(Montin, 1776)

some 20–30, including:

  • L. m. muta(Montin, 1776)
    Scandinavian ptarmigan
  • L. m. rupestris(Gmelin , 1789)
    Canadian rock ptarmigan
  • L. m. helvetica(Thienemann, 1829)
    Alpine ptarmigan
  • L. m. japonica H. L. Clark , 1907
    Japanese ptarmigan
  • L. m. millaisi Hartert , 1923
    Scottish ptarmigan
  • L. m. hyperborea Sundevall , 1845
    Svalbard ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta distribution map.png
Rock Ptarmigan range [2]
  • Tetrao mutusMontin, 1776
  • Lagopus mutus( lapsus , see below)
Lagopus muta pyrenaica - MHNT Lagopus muta pyrenaica MHNT GAL 3.jpg
Lagopus muta pyrenaica - MHNT

The rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is a medium-sized game bird in the grouse family. It is known simply as the ptarmigan in the UK and in Canada, where it is the official bird for the territory of Nunavut, [3] and the official game bird for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. [4] In Japan, it is known as the raichō (雷鳥), which means "thunder bird". It is the official bird of Gifu, Nagano, and Toyama Prefectures and is a protected species nationwide. Unlike many arctic inhabiting bird species, ptarmigan do not gain substantial mass to hibernate over winter.



The ptarmigan's genus name, Lagopus, is derived from Ancient Greek lagos (λαγώς lagṓs), meaning "hare", + pous (πούς poús), "foot", in reference to the bird's feathered legs. [5]

The species name, muta, comes from New Latin and means "mute", referring to the simple croaking song of the male. [5] It was for a long time misspelt mutus, in the erroneous belief that the ending of Lagopus denotes masculine gender. However, as the Ancient Greek term λαγώπους lagṓpous is of feminine gender, and the species name has to agree with that, the feminine muta is correct. [6]

The word ptarmigan comes from the Scottish Gaelic tàrmachan, meaning croaker. [7] The silent initial p was added in 1684 by Robert Sibbald through the influence of Greek, especially pteron (πτερόν pterón), "wing", "feather", or "pinion". [7]


The rock ptarmigan is 34–36 cm (13–14 in) long with an 8 cm (3.1 in) tail and with a wingspan of 54–60 cm (21–24 in) [8] and a weight of 15.5-22.6 oz (440-640 g). [9] It is smaller than the willow ptarmigan by about ten percent. [8]

The rock ptarmigan is seasonally camouflaged; its feathers moult from white in winter to brown in spring or summer. The breeding male has greyish upper parts with white wings and under parts. In winter, its plumage becomes completely white except for the black outer tail feathers and eye line. It can be distinguished from the winter willow ptarmigan by habitat and markings—the rock ptarmigan prefers higher elevations and more barren habitat. It also has a slender bill and a black eye stripe, which is absent in the willow ptarmigan.

Sounds and displays

Male rock ptarmigans emit a repertoire of guttural snores and rattles, most often directed to other males during breeding season. On open leks, single or multiple males also carry out displays on the ground and in the air to assert their territory, including chasing other males on the wing.

Aerial courtship rituals involve fast forward flight with rapidly-beating wings followed by an upward glide, tail fanned out. The male, at the peak of the display, belts out a rasping "ah-AAH-ah-AAAAH-a-a-a-a-a-a!", with the sung latter part coinciding with a gliding descent afterwards. [10]

On the ground, male ptarmigans defend their space by calling and giving chase to other males. Physical conflicts between territorial males rarely occur, while confrontations between the former toward subordinate males are intensified. Other signals via fanning their tails, extended necks, lowered wings and circling a receptive female are also utilized. [11]

Distribution and habitat

The rock ptarmigan is a sedentary species which breeds across Arctic and Subarctic Eurasia and North America (including Greenland) on rocky mountainsides and tundra. It is widespread in the Arctic Cordillera and is found in isolated populations in the mountains of Norway, Scotland, the Pyrenees, the Alps, Bulgaria, the Urals, the Pamir Mountains, the Altay Mountains, and Japan—where it occurs only in the Japanese Alps and on Mount Haku. [12] Because of the remote habitat in which it lives, it has only a few predators—such as golden eagles—and it can be surprisingly approachable. It has been introduced to New Zealand, South Georgia, the Kerguelen Islands, and the Crozet Islands. [13]

The small population living on Franz Josef Land in the Russian High Arctic overwinters during the polar night and survives by feeding on rich vegetation on and underneath high cliffs where seabird colonies are located in summer. [14]

During the last ice age, the species was far more widespread in continental Europe. [15]



Food sources can vary tremendously depending on the region of their distribution. In Alaska, rock ptarmigans consume aspen buds, [16] dwarf birch and willow buds and catkins as a staple winter diet. They transition their diets over to crowberries and Vaccinium shrubs during the spring. Greatest variety in diet occurs during early summer, taking in Salix leaves, as well as leaves and flowers of Dryas and Oxytropis . Also switches to berries, bistort seeds, and some Betula in late summer through autumn. Insects, larvae and snails are eaten by chicks. [17]


Apart from the red eye combs, male rock ptarmigans have no 'distinct' plumage (other than the black eye stripe) that are more typical for other grouse in temperate regions. Studies on other grouses have shown that much variation in comb size and colour exists between the species, [18] and that the comb is used in courtship display and aggressive interactions between males. [19] Many studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between the comb size and the level of testosterone in males; [20] one report from 1981 showed that the amount of testosterone is correlated to aggressiveness against other males. [21]

The male's comb has been the focus of studies regarding sexual selection. Studies of a population of male rock ptarmigans in Scarpa Lake, Nunavut, have shown that during the first year, mating success among males was influenced by comb size and condition, and bigamous males had larger combs than monogamous males. The correlation to size disappeared after the first year, but the correlation to comb condition remained. [22] This is consistent with another study of the same population of L. muta that showed that mating success overall is correlated to comb condition. Exceptions were first-time breeders, in which the size of the comb influenced mating success. [23]

The rock ptarmigan becomes sexually mature at six months of age and commonly has up to six chicks. Because of this high breeding rate, the size of the population is affected very little by factors such as hunting.


Energy Storage and Assimilation

Rock ptarmigan have a limited capacity for fat storage, [24] which requires overwintering birds to forage frequently. [25] Most of the miniscule mass gained over winter is to the ovary, oviduct and hypertrophy, in preparation for the spring breeding season. [25] Rock ptarmigan maximize assimilation of nutrient poor foods with their elongated ceca. [16] Metabolic requirements can be partially supplemented by fermentation, the energy gain from fermentation alone, however, is not independently significant. [16]

The Svalbard subspecies of rock ptarmigan is the only subspecies that exhibits a significant seasonal mass gain. [26] Larger fat deposits can help them survive during periods of low food availability. [27] However, this alone is not an adequate source of energy to survive during winter. Locomotion appears to have no energetic cost in these birds. [28] This adaptation is key for a species that must move frequently to forage. [28] Fat assimilation in these birds is correlated to changes in liver weight. [27] Most rock ptarmigan have no more than 20 grams of adipose tissue year round. [26] Without food, these reserves can supplement energy for 2 days. [26] The Svalbard rock ptarmigan, however, gains about 100 grams of adipose tissue. [26] This can serve as an energy source for up to 10 days of starvation. [26]

The Svalbard subspecies inhabits the northern extent of the rock ptarmigans range. [29] During winter, food availability is lower in Svalbard than in other parts of their range, which accounts for the necessary increased fat reserves not found in other sub populations. [29]

In culture

Rock ptarmigan meat is a popular part of festive meals in Icelandic cuisine. Hunting of rock ptarmigans was banned in Iceland in 2003 and 2004 due to its declining population. Hunting has been allowed again since 2005, but is restricted to selected days, which are revised yearly and all trade of rock ptarmigan is illegal. [30]

In Thomas Bewick's A History of British Birds (1797) the species is named as "White Grouse" with alternatives "White Game, or Ptarmigan". The birds feed, records Bewick, "on the wild productions of the hills, which sometimes give the flesh a bitter, but not unpalatable taste: it is dark coloured, and has somewhat the flavour of the hare." [31]

Provincial bird

The rock ptarmigan is the official territorial bird of Nunavut, Canada. [32] Its Inuktitut name is ᐊᕐᑭᒡᒋᖅ ᐊᑕᔪᓕᒃ, aqiggiq atajulik. [33] It is the official game bird of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Phasianidae Family of birds

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Sanderling Species of bird

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Willow ptarmigan Species of bird

The willow ptarmigan is a bird in the grouse subfamily Tetraoninae of the pheasant family Phasianidae. It is also known as the willow grouse and in Ireland and Britain, where the subspecies L. l. scotica was previously considered to be a separate species, as the red grouse. It is a sedentary species, breeding in birch and other forests and moorlands in northern Europe, the tundra of Scandinavia, Siberia, Alaska and Canada, in particular in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec. It is the state bird of Alaska. In the summer the birds are largely brown, with dappled plumage, but in the winter they are white with some black feathers in their tails. The species has remained little changed from the bird that roamed the tundra during the Pleistocene. Nesting takes place in the spring when clutches of four to ten eggs are laid in a scrape on the ground. The chicks are precocial and soon leave the nest. While they are young, both parents play a part in caring for them. The chicks eat insects and young plant growth while the adults are completely herbivorous, eating leaves, flowers, buds, seeds and berries during the summer and largely subsisting on the buds and twigs of willow and other dwarf shrubs and trees during the winter.

Red grouse Subspecies of bird

The red grouse is a medium-sized bird of the grouse family which is found in heather moorland in Great Britain and Ireland. It is usually classified as a subspecies of the willow ptarmigan but is sometimes considered to be a separate species, Lagopus scotica. It is also known as the moorcock, moorfowl or moorbird. Lagopus is derived from Ancient Greek lagos (λαγος), meaning "hare", + pous (πους), "foot", in reference to the feathered feet and toes typical of this cold-adapted genus, and scoticus is "of Scotland".

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White-tailed ptarmigan Species of bird

The white-tailed ptarmigan, also known as the snow quail, is the smallest bird in the grouse family. It is a permanent resident of high altitudes on or above the tree line and is native to Alaska and the mountainous parts of Canada and the western United States. Its plumage is cryptic and varies at different times of the year. In the summer it is speckled in gray, brown and white whereas in winter it is wholly white. At all times of year the wings, belly and tail are white. The white-tailed ptarmigan has a diet of buds, leaves, flowers and seeds. The nest is a simple depression in the ground in which up to eight eggs are laid. After hatching, the chicks soon leave the nest. At first they eat insects but later move on to an adult diet, their mother using vocalisations to help them find suitable plant food. The population seems to be stable and the IUCN lists this species as being of "Least Concern".

<i>Lagopus</i> Genus of birds

Lagopus is a small genus of birds in the grouse subfamily commonly known as ptarmigans. The genus contains three living species with numerous described subspecies, all living in tundra or cold upland areas.

Upland game bird

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Snow camouflage Camouflage coloration for winter snow

Snow camouflage is the use of a coloration or pattern for effective camouflage in winter, often combined with a different summer camouflage. Summer patterns are typically disruptively patterned combinations of shades of browns and greys, up to black, while winter patterns are dominated by white to match snowy landscapes.

Urumiit or uruniit is a term used by native Inuit peoples in Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic to refer to the feces of the rock ptarmigan and the willow ptarmigan, which are considered a delicacy in their food cultures. The droppings are collected when they have dried out during the winter months, a time in which food sources are scarce, especially on land, so the pre-digested willow and birch plant matter in ptarmigan scat provides a much needed source of nutrition in a harsh environment. One ptarmigan may defecate as many as 50 times in one spot, so urumiit is very plentiful and easy to gather. The pellet-shaped droppings are generally cooked in rancidified seal fat before eating; sometimes mixed with seal or ptarmigan meat or blood. Historically in some areas, the meat cooked with urumiit is prepared by being pre-chewed by the women of a household. The smell of cooked urumiit in rancid fat has been compared to that of Gorgonzola cheese. It has been cited as a dish which non-Inuit people are particularly likely to find disgusting, and as an example how much taste in food can vary between cultural contexts.


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