For the Birds Radio Program: Ptarmigans
If it’s tough to be a bird, it’s tougher to be a tasty bird.
Date completely uncertain
If rain in summer can be considered weather for ducks, perhaps twenty-below temperatures could be called weather for ptarmigans. The Willow Ptarmigan, close relative of our Ruffed Grouse, belongs in northern Canada and Alaska, where it’s the state bird, but once or twice an enormous invasion has brought a few to Wisconsin and Minnesota, especially near Lake Superior. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened since I’ve lived here. I’ve never seen a Willow Ptarmigan, but I’ve wanted to ever since I was a little girl reading Jack London’s White Fang. The first creatures White Fang learned to hunt and kill were tasty little ptarmigan chicks. I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to pronounce a word that started with a p-t, but I sure wanted to see one.
This time of year, ptarmigans are plume grouse starting to get into their elegant white plumage. They’re feathered all the way to the tips of their toes. These thickly-feathered feet reminded an early ornithologist of rabbit feet, leading to their scientific name lagopus. Their thick plumage keeps them warm as well as camouflaged against the snow, and for added protection against fierce air temperatures and winds they can burrow into a literal blanket of snow. Come spring they molt into an elegant coat of rich chocolate flecked with white, set off by white primary wing feathers, and with a dash of elegance in ruby red bare skin just above their eyes.
Willow Ptarmigans are found throughout the extreme north of our hemisphere, and a close relative is even found in Japan, high in the mountains. They’re unusual in the grouse family because the male attends the female during both incubation and the raising of young. They’re a popular food for Arctic foxes and wolves, Gyrfalcons, and Snowy Owls, and they’re also a popular game bird among human hunters. Like most tasty birds, ptarmigans eat mostly plant material—soft leaves and buds of willows, birches, and alders, and lots of cranberries and blueberries. They also take insects when they can get them. This time of year, all they can get is fibrous woody plants, so their intestines grow enormous to extract what little nutrition is possible with such fare.
Ptarmigan weigh about the same as our partridge—about a pound or a pound and a half. They have lots of babies, averaging 10 in a brood in Newfoundland, but they seldom live long enough to watch their grandchildren grow up. Of 12,000 banded, there were only 4 that lived to see their fourth birthday. If it’s tough to be a bird, it’s even tougher to be a tasty bird.