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What is the State Bird of Alaska? (And Why?)

Alaska is both the most northern and western state, it's also the largest state by area by a long way. Although it's actually a massive state, the population is just over 700,000 people making it the 48th most populous state in the US. The state animal for Alaska is the moose, but what is the state bird?

The state of Alaska chose the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) as the state bird in 1960. Sort of. Alaska originally chose its official bird in 1955, but it was not yet a state. When it gained statehood in 1960, the willow ptarmigan automatically got elevated to state bird.

The state bird of Alaska, the Willow Ptarmigan

The state bird of Alaska, the Willow Ptarmigan

Why is the Willow Ptarmigan the state bird for Alaska?

Alaska chose its official state bird, the willow ptarmigan, due to its smart use of camouflage as predator protection. Its resourcefulness in altering its plumage from summer’s light brown to snowy white during winter impressed the state’s residents.

When did the Willow Ptarmigan become the state bird for Alaska?

In 1955, Alaska officially chose the Willow Ptarmigan as its official bird. Since Alaska had yet to become a state, it was the territory’s official bird until 1960, when Alaska became the 49th state, and the willow ptarmigan became the 49th state bird named.

Male Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage

Male Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage

What does the state bird of Alaska look like?

This Alaskan arctic grouse actually looks a lot like a chicken. The willow ptarmigan features a stocky build with a rather short tail. Even its legs and toes have feathers. As mentioned, it transforms color during the year. In summer, the male appears reddish-brown, with a white stomach and wings, while the female appears darker with mottling to her feathers. These birds molt in spring and fall. During winter, both genders of the bird transform to a completely white coat with only a few black tail feathers to differentiate it from the snow.

Measuring from head to tail, the Willow Ptarmigan grows to about 15 inches. Its wingspan measures about 17 to 21 inches. These birds reach a height of 11 to 14 inches and weigh a little more than most songbirds - from 3 to 6 ounces.

A pair of Willow Ptarmigans moulting into their winter plumage

A pair of Willow Ptarmigans moulting into their winter plumage

How do these birds behave?

The Willow Ptarmigan lives about two years in the wilds of Alaska. It spends much of its time avoiding death. The circle of life is very real in Alaska, a state of mostly wilderness. This grouse has numerous predators that it spends most of its time avoiding. These predators include bald eagles, gulls, hooded crows, ravens, northern goshawks, magpies, red foxes, pine martens, mink, peregrine falcons, short-tailed weasels, least weasels, northern harriers, golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, gyrfalcons, and snowy owls. Essentially, most of the wildlife in Alaska wants to devour this cute little grouse, hence its nifty evolution to completely change its feathers twice per year.

This migratory bird resides in the arctic areas of Canada and Alaska. They favor valleys and areas with lots of dense vegetation. They do migrate south for winter, but not out of state. These hearty birds remain where it is snowy and blend in with the scenery. During 80 percent of winter, they stay hidden in a snow burrow they dig.

You could consider the Willow ptarmigan talkative when the occasion calls for it. They typically have low-pitched voices and use guttural inflections for their vocalizations. During dating and mating, the male makes barking noises and rattling sounds. These expressive avians have a laugh that almost sounds like a human chuckle. They react to various stimuli with clucking sounds and will expostulate when given the opportunity.

A flock of Willow Ptarmigans

A flock of Willow Ptarmigans

Do Willow Ptarmigans form communities?

These outgoing birds form flocks after the breeding season ends. Part of that is for survival, since it makes it easier to evade predators when you fly in a flock. During the breeding season, though, it is all about making a family and rearing their families. The bird practices serial monogamy and polygyny. They form pair bonds (coupling) lasting only the breeding season. The following year, they develop a new relationship and breed with a different bird.

The birds have a complex mating ritual. It begins in April and May when males of the species establish and fiercely defend their breeding territories. When females arrive in this area a few weeks later, the male begins courting his chosen mate. He may express his machismo to a few females through strutting, performing aerial feats, and tail-fanning, but many males may perform these same mating rituals for all of the females. The female Willow Ptarmigan chooses her mate from the males and chooses their nesting site.

During each breeding period, the female lays about six to ten eggs. It takes 21 to 22 days for the eggs to incubate, during which time the male guards the female. While their chicks are born fully developed, the babies need quite a bit of care. They can leave the nest the day they’re born with their parents, but they require months of guidance before they can survive alone in Alaska. They don’t reach independence until the age of five to seven months. Until that time, they remain with their parents.

Migration time occurs before they reach this independence. However, when the time comes to migrate to a lower altitude, the males and females part ways. The children typically go with their female parent. The females and chicks may fly about 100 miles away from the breeding grounds to winter in hills or a wooded valley. The flock of males does not travel as far. An exception to this does occur if the female dies before migration time. In these cases, the male bird takes over the role of both parents to care for the chicks.

Willow Ptarmigan stood near some willow

Willow Ptarmigan stood near some willow

What do Willow Ptarmigans eat?

An early morning forager, the arctic grouse also dines in the afternoon. They stealthily walk the ground, munching berries, vegetation, and insects. During summer’s warmth, they feed all day.

The willow ptarmigan changes its diet depending on the time of year. From October through March, their favorite meals consist of catkins and buds of dwarf birch or crowberry plants. When April rolls around, the birds add overwintered berries to their diet.

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