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The White-tailed Ptarmigan

Male White-tailed Ptarmigan,
Horseshoe Mountain, Colorado
Ptarmigan (pronounced "p" as in pneumonia; "g" as in grouse) expert camoflouge in all seasons Photograph, Wiliam S. Cassilly (Glendale, Missouri)

The White Tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus) is a year-round resident of alpine tunda and high meadows in the Rocky Mountains in the United States and far northwest, through Canada and Alaska. "High alpine tundra" has been described by Sibley as "harsh and unpredictable climate, strong winds, a limited growing season and low year-round temperatures." (C. Elphick, J. B. Dunning, Jr., D. A. Sibley, Editors., The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001], p. 99) It harbors few birds, but Ptarmigans thrive there. Much of their survival is tied to brilliant camouflage. They are nearly invisible, the result of almost continuous molt or change of feather from Spring until late Fall. They match their appearance by season to the colors of their habitat. (Ibid, p. 235) This summer fellow will be snow white (with black bill, red eye comb, and feathered feet) by Winter.

Smallest member of the grouse family (13" in length), the Ptarmigan has well developed legs for walking and employs bursts of flight interrupted by glides. (Ibid, p. 233) Adults are mostly vegetarians (buds, twigs, leaves ) and feed in flocks except in mating season. White-tailed Ptarmigans don't live long (approx. 1 year) but their numbers are doing well - probably because their habitat is so remote and rough there is little human disturbance. October Report 2002


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