For the Birds Radio Program: Willow Ptarmigan

Original Air Date: June 1, 1988

From White Fang’s first wild-caught meal to the bird that makes the weirdest call in the universe, the Willow Ptarmigan is pretty pterrific, even if the “p” at the start of the word doesn’t really belong there.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Willow Ptarmigan)

That’s the call of the Willow Ptarmigan, the bird voted by four different junior high classes as having the weirdest bird call in the universe. This assessment may or may not be correct- -after all, there was no way for the students to hear the calls of birds on six other continents of this planet, and they had to take my word for it that there were no birds on any other planets in the universe, but, regardless, it is indisputable that the Willow Ptarmigan makes one heck of a weird call.

(Recording of a Willow Ptarmigan)

The Willow Ptarmigan, a close relative of grouse, is the state bird of Alaska. It’s truly a bird of the far north, found throughout the arctic circle in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and in the northern reaches of Asia and Europe. But unlike most of its relatives, Willow Ptarmigans are very migratory, and in winter often wander thousands of miles southward. There are one or two records of them showing up in Wisconsin in winter, and three times they have turned up in Minnesota. One bird was collected in Lake of the Woods County in April, 1914, and two more were observed at a feeder in Lake of the Woods County between February 27 and March 12, 1964. And then there was the winter of the Willow Ptarmigan–1933-1934, when over 200 sightings were made between December 7 and April 25, in Roseau, Lake of the Woods, and St. Louis Counties. The reason for these invasions is not understood.

Willow Ptarmigans nest on open tundra. In spring, they molt out of their winter white plumage into a rich brown mottled plumage in keeping with the color change on the tundra. Each male selects a spot of bare ground and struts and calls to attract a female, who apparently finds weird calls romantic. Males fight among themselves fiercely–frequently plucking feathers and drawing blood, while the females hide under cover. After mating, the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. In most species of grouse and ptarmigan, the male takes no part in taking care of the young, but this isn’t true of the Willow Ptarmigan. Males of this species remain with their mates throughout the nesting period, defending them against enemies. They fly viciously at gulls, even managing to knock them over to prevent them from stealing the eggs. At least one Willow Ptarmigan has been recorded attacking a grizzly bear that stumbled over his mate’s nest, and there are many records of them attacking people that approached the nest or young. Both parents attend the young for at least 60 days after hatching.

In Jack London’s classic book, White Fang, the first animal that the wolf cub hunted successfully was a ptarmigan chick—he in turn was fiercely attacked by the ptarmigan mother, and was only saved when a hawk dropped down and grabbed the adult ptarmigan for a meal. I first read this book as a child, and the word ptarmigan seemed strange and exotic because it begins with a silent letter ‘P,’ like pterodactyl. Oddly enough, that ‘P’ is actually an etymological mistake. The word ptarmigan comes from Gaelic, and means something akin to mountaineer or white game. The P was first added to the spelling by Sibbald in his book Scotia Ilustra in 1684–he mistakenly believed that the word came from Greek. No matter how you spell it, Alaska’s state bird is one pterrific bird.

(Recording of a Willow Ptarmigan)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”