Willow Ptarmigan
Used with permission. © Robert McDonald
Thanks to Robert for allowing us to use this picture.

Willow Ptarmigan

(Genus, species:  Lagopus lagopus)

The Willow Ptarmigan is found only in the colder regions of North America.  During particularly chilly winters they do migrate further south than normal and can be seen in locations throughout Canada where they normally are not found.

The same species is also found in Britain, but it is called the Red Grouse.  Unlike its North American counterpart, it does not turn white in the winter.

Willow Ptarmigan Distribution and Location

General:  The North American species turn snow white in the winter.  They will often fly into snow banks and nestle in the snow to sleep.  By flying into the banks instead of walking, they don't leave tracks for predators to follow.

Willow Ptarmigan Description
Willow Ptarmigan (summer coloring) 
photo taken by Bates Littlehales

Description - male:  Willow ptarmigan are fairly large birds, the size of a small chicken.  During the summer, the male has a chestnut brown head and neck, with a mainly white belly splashed with brown.  The tail feathers are black and the eyebrows are red.  

During the winter, the bird is entirely white but for its black eyes, bill and outer tail.  It also retains the red eyebrow.  The feet of the bird are heavily feathered and act much like snow shoes.


Description - female:  The female is identical to the male in winter.  During the summer it is a mottled brown (less reddish than the male) with some white on the belly.

Willow Ptarmigan Feeding
Used with permission. © Robert McDonald

Feeding:  The willow ptarmigan feeds mainly on leaves and shoots of plants, but also eats berries, seeds and insects.  It prefers willow and birch.


Habitat:  The willow ptarmigan can be found in the tundra and in thickets with alder and willow trees.  They are found in open forests and shrub meadows high in the mountains where the temperature is colder.


Nesting:  The nests contain seven to ten eggs in a hollowed out area on the ground lined with feathers and grass.  The female will try to find a place sheltered by rocks or logs.  The male guards the area while the female incubates the eggs.  The chicks hatch after about three weeks.

The Fox is an enemy of the Willow Ptarmigan

Enemies:  The most common enemies of the willow ptarmigan are hawks, foxes and owls.

Migration:   Some ptarmigan populations will migrate south in the winter though it often depends on the severity of the winter.


Worksheets and Other Activities:


[Birds of Alberta]  [Canada Geese]  [Great Horned Owl]  [Merlin]  [Northern Goshawk]  [Pine Grosbeak]  [Puffin]  [Rock Dove]  [Ruffed Grouse]  [Sharp-tailed Grouse]  [Steller's Jay]  [Wild Turkey]  [Willow Ptarmigan]