For the Birds Radio Program: Willow Ptarmigan
The bird making one of the weirdest sounds in the universe happens to be Alaska’s state bird–the very first species that the wolf pup White Fang hunted all by himself.
Is this the weirdest bird call in the universe? When I taught junior high, I asked my students to find the weirdest bird call on my bird recordings. By an almost unanimous vote, they chose the Willow Ptarmigan. Weirdness is subjective, and birds not on my records may produce even stranger sounds, but Alaska’s state bird would certainly make just about anyone’s top ten list for its bizarre call.
The Willow Ptarmigan is a huge grouse of the tundra. In Jack London’s classic White Fang, the wolf cub stalked and killed a brood of ptarmigan chicks on his first outing, and then killed their mother. I read the book in fifth grade and was mystified by the word ptarmigan, which starts with the letter combination pt. The word has an interesting etymology—it comes from the Gaelic word tarmachan, for mountaineer. The p was added at the beginning by the author of the book Scotia Illustrated, who mistakenly thought it came from the Greek ptarmike, which starts with pt and means yellow. However you spell it and whatever its derivation, ptarmigans are fascinating birds, exquisitely adapted to their frozen world. Their huge size compared to other grouse minimizes heat loss. Their heavily feathered toes function as snowshoes. When snow is deep and temperatures low, ptarmigans dig into the snow at dusk and burrow until they’re entirely submerged. During bad weather ptarmigans may remain in their burrows for extended periods during the day. In less extreme conditions, they may simply construct a snow hollow, submerging their bodies but keeping their heads at snow level.
The Willow Ptarmigan is unique among grouse, including other ptarmigan species, in that individuals are monogamous, and males help rear the young. In North America, these birds are shockingly tame—I found several when I was in Alaska in 2001. Even though I was looking hard for them, I seldom noticed one until I was within 10 feet or less, and then it just slowly wandered away rather than flying off in a flurry. For some reason, the same species is far warier in northern Europe and Asia. As the fictional character White Fang discovered, ptarmigan are tasty and large. They provide a lot of food for gulls, harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, Golden and Bald Eagles, Peregrine and Gyrfalcons, Northern Goshawks, Great Horned, Snowy, and Short-eared Owls, wolverines, wolves, arctic and red fox, lynx, and polar bears. As a first line of defense as a predator approaches, they freeze in place, aided by their cryptic coloration. Willow Ptarmigans are almost completely pure white in winter, blending in with snow, and turn a lovely mixture of browns, black and rufous in summer, blending in beautifully with lichen-covered rocks. As White Fang painfully discovered, if the cryptic coloration doesn’t work and a predator approaches too close or grabs a chick, one or both parents may attack.
The wonderfully bizarre vocalizations are given by both sexes, though the male’s calls are slightly harsher and lower pitched. Ptarmigan vocalize most often during the breeding season. Birders camping in Alaska and Canada hear them most often from their tents, partly because the humans are hidden, and partly because the calls are produced most often at dawn and dusk. Whenever and wherever one hears it, when a Willow Ptarmigan talks, people listen.