Happy New Year! It’s winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means snow and cold weather. In fact, I went through a blizzard just a few weeks ago in Michigan!
That got me thinking about all the animals that are adapted to and thrive in cold weather. So today, let me introduce you to one such animal, the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus).
Willow ptarmigans are round, chicken-sized birds that live in the northern reaches of the Northern hemisphere, across upper Canada, Alaska, Europe, and Asia. They live and nest in areas with dense vegetation, such as willow shrubs (hence their name). This vegetation provides both food and shelter for the birds.
During the summer, willow ptarmigans have feathers that are a mix of browns and reds; this helps them blend into the stark tundra. Their plumage turns white in winter, providing excellent camouflage against the snow.
The ‘p’ is silent
There is a subspecies of ptarmigan that doesn’t turn white in the winter and instead stays red all year long: the red grouse. This subspecies of willow ptarmigan is only found in the Scottish highlands, where it lives year-round in heather.
I bring up the red grouse because they are the source for the name ‘ptarmigan.’ ‘Ptarmigan’ comes from the old Scottish Gaelic word for the red grouse, ‘tàrmachan.’
Why was the ‘p’ added? Early ornithologists thought that ‘tarmigan’ was a Greek word, so they just tacked a ‘p’ onto the front.
The genus name for the willow ptarmigan, Lagopus, is, in fact, Greek. It means ‘hare-footed’ and refers to their feathered feet and toes (more on those later).
Made for winter
Most birds that live in the arctic only do so in the summer, when they can take advantage of the long days and reasonably mild weather. Willow ptarmigans are one of the few birds that live on the subarctic tundra year-round.
Because of their many cold-weather adaptations, Willow ptarmigans can live through the arctic winter. One adaptation is their feathered feet! Willow ptarmigan have feathers that grow to the tips of their toes in the winter. This helps keep their feet warm. In addition, these feathers increase the surface area of their feet, making it so the ptarmigans have snowshoes and can walk across snow drifts. Sharp, elongated claws help the willow ptarmigan cross icy slopes.
Willow ptarmigan also hide from the cold by sleeping in snow caves. Snow provides good insulation from the cold; sleeping in a snow burrow keeps the ptarmigan from freezing. Willow ptarmigans will sometimes even fly directly into a snow bank. This gets the ptarmigan to the warmth of the snow without creating tracks for predators to follow them.
Loyal (for a grouse)
Willow ptarmigans are generally monogamous within a breeding season. However, a small percentage of males are polygamous and will mate with multiple females. Around 85% of willow ptarmigans will mate again with this partner the following year, assuming both individuals make it through the winter.
Willow ptarmigans are the only grouse where the male will help raise the young. Once a nest is made, the male spends his time guarding an incubating hen and their eggs against predators like gulls, foxes, and owls. The male and the female will care for the chicks until they are about 60 days old. Males will even take over all family responsibilities for the chicks if the female is killed.
Willow ptarmigans will form flocks in the winter, sometimes as large as 2,200 birds. If you watch these flocks, you might see some ptarmigans playing with each other!
One bird will start by bobbing their head and then jumping around. Others will follow suit until you have a bunch of birds jumping and flapping their wings together. This frolicking could help the birds sharpen their motor skills or increase social cohesion with their flock-mates. Or, who knows, it could just be fun!
One last fun fact: there is a town in Alaska called ‘Chicken.’ The town of miners was set to become the second town in Alaska in 1902, so of course, it needed a name. The name ‘Ptarmigan’ was suggested due to the large numbers of ptarmigan in the area that served as an essential food source. Unfortunately, no one could agree on how to spell ‘ptarmigan.’ To avoid having outsiders laugh at a misspelled town name, they decided to call themselves ‘Chicken’ instead.