Backyard Friends: The Ptarmigan

Backyard Friends: The Ptarmigan

General Overview

Ptarmigans are a genus of birds related to grouse, chickens, turkeys and pheasants (10). There are three species of ptarmigan, each with several subspecies: the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) and the white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura).

The scientific name Lagopus comes from Greek and means rabbit footed (5). This refers to the ptarmigan’s distinctive feathery feet which act as snowshoes to help them walk on soft snow. The word “ptarmigan” comes from the Scottish Gaelic “tàrmachan” and its first recorded use dates back to 1599 (12). The name means “croaker” or “grumbler” in Gaelic, a reference to the birds’ vocalizations. The silent P was added to the word in the late 17th century when an ornithologist incorrectly assumed the words origin was Greek, like pterodactyl (2). The 17th century ornithologist’s assumption was wrong, but their error has stuck.


All ptarmigan species have distinctive feathery feet, which differentiate them from other grouse (11). The extra feathers act like snowshoes, helping the ptarmigan walk on soft snow during the winter time. Most species of ptarmigan have distinctive seasonal plumages, often turning white in the winter time to camouflage with their environment. One exception to this is the Red Grouse from the UK, which retains its reddish-brown plumage in the wintertime. 

The males of two species, the rock and willow ptarmigan, may have bright red combs above their eyes, which make them easy to identify (11). 


Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)

A willow ptarmigan standing in snow on a winter day, looking to the side,
A willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) in Yellowknife, N.W.T. (Taylor Holmes, 2023).
Map of the Northern hemisphere showing the range of the willow ptarmigan, which extends from Alaska to Nunavut, and Northern Europe to Siberia.
The willow ptarmigan's current global range (IUCN, 2024).

Common Names: Alaska ptarmigan, Alexander ptarmigan, Allen ptarmigan, Arctic grouse, red grouse (found in Scotland), Scottish grouse, white grouse, white-shafted ptarmigan, willow grouse, willow partridge and willow ptarmigan (9).

Conservation Status: Least Concern (populations declining gloabally).

Habitat: Primarily subalpine and subarctic zones. In the summer, they can be found in areas with lush vegetation, such as arctic valleys, marshy tundra, coastal regions and forested areas — especially those with willow (Salix) and birch (Betula) shrubs (9). In the wintertime these ptarmigan seek more protected areas, often moving further into valleys or more densely vegetated areas within their range. In some areas, females and juveniles tend to move into boreal forests, while males remain in more open habitats.


  • Summer: Willow ptarmigan eat a variety of different foods (9). This includes willow buds, grass shoots, flowers, seeds, berries,  insects, caterpillars and beetles.
  • Winter: Willow buds and twigs are the primary food source for willow ptarmigan in the winter. The amount of berries, seeds and plant buds eaten increases in the winter, when insects are not available.

Predators: Hooded crows, ravens, magpies, red foxes, pine Martens, mink, short-tailed weasels, least weasels, gulls, northern harriers, golden eagles, bald eagles, rough legged hawks, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, northern goshawks, snowy owls, wolverine, wolves, arctic foxes, lynx and polar bears.

The ptarmigan is also a vital food source for people in for northern communities across the bird’s range.


  • To conserve energy, these birds walk or run instead of fly most of the time (though they can fly) (9).
  • Willow ptarmigan bathe in dust, sand or snow.
  • Willow ptarmigan have many different courtship displays, most of these behaviours are displayed by males.

The Red Grouse is a subspecies of Willow Ptarmigan native to the United Kingdom. What makes this subspecies stand out is that unlike other Willow Ptarmigan, the Red Grouse’s plumage does not turn white in the winter. The white winter plumages most ptarmigan display help these birds blend into snowy environments. The Red Grouse’s plumage stays a reddish-brown, since this species lives in milder, maritime climate with less snow than its relatives. 

Common Names: Scottish Grouse,

Range: Scotland, Ireland and Northern England.

Conservation Status: Least Concern

Habitat: Heather moorlands (15)

Diet: Heather makes up the vast majority of the Red Grouse’s diet. In the winter, 95 per cent of the Red Grouses diet consists of heather.

Predators: Red foxes, wildcats, golden eagles, buzzards.

A male Red Grouse in Northumberland, England.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

a white rock ptarmigan standing on top of snow.
A male rock ptarmigan in Vadsø, Norway (christoph_moning, 2022, via Wikimedia Commons).
a map of the northern hemisphere showing the range of the rock ptarmigan globally in orange. Its range covers much of the Arctic coasts of North America, Europe and Asia.
The rock ptarmigan's current global range (IUCN, 2024)

Common Names: Arctic grouse, barren-ground bird, rocker, snow grouse, and white grouse (3). Aqiggaq in Inuktitut (1). Called the “Thunderbird” in Japan, because of its tendency to dwell in mountainous territory with frequent storms (3).

Conservation Status: Least Concern (population declining globally)

Habitat: Subarctic grasslands and tundra. In the summer, males choose areas with lots of rocky outlooks and sparse vegetation (3). Females often nest on rocky outcrops with little vegetation. In the winter time females seek more cover.

Diet: Adult rock ptarmigan are almost exclusively vegetarian, chicks feed on insects and spider (3). 

  •  Summer: blueberries, horsetails, crowberries, mountain avens, and sedges.
  • Winter: Buds, twigs and catkins — particularly willow and birch. 

Predators: Gyrfalcons and other raptors are major predators of the rock ptarmigan (4). The rock ptarmigan is also a vital food source for people in the North including the Inuit. 

White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura)

a white tailed ptarmigan standing in snow in the winter.
A white-tailed ptarmigan in Loveland Pass, Colorado (Ron Knight, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons).
Map showing the range of the white-tailed ptarmigan in orange. Its range extends from Eastern Alaska down through the southern Rocky Mountains.
The white-tailed ptarmigan's current range. This is the only species of ptarmigan found exclusively in North America (IUCN, 2024).

Conservation Status: Least Concern (populations declining gloabally) (7).

Habitat: Boreal forests and rocky areas (7). This species inhabits harsh, alpine tundra where willow (Salix) is abundant (4). In the summer these ptarmigans nest in areas above the tree line and near water such as stream heads or springs. 


  • Winter: Willow (Salix) plants are a vital food source for the white-tailed ptarmigan in the winter, when willow buds and twigs make up the bulk of its diet. (4) 
  • Summer: The white-tailed ptarmigan’s diet is more varied in summer. Their summer diet consists of willow buds and leaves, flowers, lichen and insects. 

Predators: Raptors, foxes.


Alpine: Mountainous environments that are above the tree line.

  •  Subalpine: Mountainous habitats that are just below tree line.

Arctic: The Northernmost region on Earth which includes and surround the Arctic Circle. Mathematically the Arctic is anywhere North of the 66 degrees latitude, however there is some deviation from this boundary in terms of terrain (some “arctic habitats” are just below the Arctic Circle).

  •  Subarctic: Environments near, but south of the Arctic Circle. 

Camouflage: Patterns or colourations that help an organism blend into its environment, typically used to avoid being seen by predators.

Courtship: Behaviours performed by animals to attract a mate. This can include dances and dances. 

Moorlands: Open, hilly areas characterized by a lack of trees. This habitat is found in temperate regions and often contains grasses, shrubs, heather and other low-growing vegetation.

Plumage: The term referring to a bird’s feathers collectively, and the patterns they show.

Tundra: The coldest ecosystem on the planet, found around the Arctic in North America, Europe and Asia. Found just below the icecaps, tundra is characterized by a permanently frozen layer of soil, called permafrost, and a lack of trees. 


  1. “Animal Facts: Rock Ptarmigan.” (2023). Canadian Geographic. Accessed April 1, 2024
  2. Barber, K. “Why is there a silent p in ptarmigan?” (2013). Wordlady. Accessed April 11, 2024
  3. Hejna, M. “Lagopus muta” (2002). Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 30, 2024
  4. Hitztaler, S. “Lagopus leucura.” (2001). Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 30, 2024
  5. “Lagopus.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed March 28, 2024
  6. “Lagopus lagopus (Willow Grouse).” (2016). IUCN Red List. Accessed March 30, 2024
  7. “Lagopus leucura (White-tailed Ptarmigan).” (2019). IUCN Red List. Accessed March 30, 2024
  8. “Lagopus muta (Rock Ptarmigan).” (2016). IUCN Red List. Accessed March 30, 2024
  9. Morland, S. “Lagopus lagopus.” (2011). Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 30, 2024
  10. “Pheasants, partridges and falcons.” (2024). IOC World Bird List, v14.1. Accessed March 28, 2024
  11. “Ptarmigan.” (1994). Hinterland Who’s Who. Accessed March 28, 2024
  12. “Ptarmigan.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed March 30, 2024
  13. “Reconsidering Alaska’s State Bird: Ptarmigan vs. Raven.” (2005). Laura Erickson’s for the Birds.,of%20anything%20to%20avoid%20danger.. Accessed March 30, 2024
  14. “Willow Ptarmigan Overview.” All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed March 30, 2024
  15. “Red Grouse.” (N.D), British Trust for Ornithology. Accessed April 21, 2024.


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