The Rock Ptarmigan is perfectly at home in the extreme climate of the northern tundra, even changing its plumage each year to blend in with the snow. There are at least 20 recognized subspecies of this widespread and common gamebird, each with varying distributions and plumage characteristics.
Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage
Juvenile Rock Ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan resting in a snow cave
Rock Ptarmigan portrait
33cm to 40cm
54cm to 60cm
400g to 880g
Rock Ptarmigans are plump game birds with small hooked bills, dark eyes, and feathered legs and feet. They look dramatically different between the seasons, developing pure white plumage in the winter to match their snowy habitat and darker, cryptic colouration in the warmer months.
Males and females look more or less alike in the winter, with all white plumage except for a black tail and a black eye with a reddish ‘eyebrow’ known as a comb. Males can be identified by their more prominent comb and the black streak between their eyes and bill.
In the breeding season, female Rock Ptarmigans have white wings and rich, speckled and barred plumage combining warm brown, black and yellowish feathers. Males in breeding plumage have finely barred, grey-brown upperparts and white legs and underparts.
Juveniles resemble adult females but have white feather tips on their upperparts and a softer, fluffier appearance.
Rock Ptarmigan in summer plumage
Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage
Adults measure 33 to 40 centimetres in length. Males Rock Ptarmigans are usually larger than females in all respects.
Male Rock Ptarmigans are generally heavier than males, except just before females lay their eggs. Males usually weigh 450 to 880 grams (16 - 31oz), while females weigh 400 to 700 grams (14 - 24 oz)
These birds have a wingspan of 54 to 60 centimetres or 21 to 24 inches.
Rock Ptarmigan walking on the rocky mountain
Male Rock Ptarmigans perform a drawn-out croaking/clucking flight song when courting a female. They produce a wide range of calls during the breeding season, including strange hissing, coo-ing, clucking, and rattling sounds.
Rock Ptarmigan calling during the breeding season
Rock Ptarmigans are primarily herbivorous, taking flowers, buds, catkins, leaves, berries, and seeds. They also eat insects and snails when available in summer.
Rock Ptarmigan chicks eat caterpillars and snails for their first week or so but rely increasingly on berries and other plant material as they grow older. The young birds stick together with their mother but leave the nest on their first day, already fully capable of feeding themselves.
Rock Ptarmigan foraging in natural habitat
Rock Ptarmigans are most at home in the sparsely vegetated rocky tundra, although they also inhabit mountain summits and open meadows. They avoid wooded areas and habitats dominated by tall vegetation.
Rock Ptarmigans occur in the coldest regions of the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska to Greenland and across Northern Europe to Siberia. They also occur further south in alpine habitats in Japan, Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and across the Alps of southern Europe.
Rock Ptarmigans are terrestrial birds that live in cold, open, and mountainous environments in the far north of the world. They are well-suited to their surroundings, with feathered feet that prevent heat loss and act like snowshoes. These tough birds even dig themselves into the snow to shelter from cold winds.
Rock Ptarmigans are not rare, although they are rarely seen due to their inhospitable habitat. Their global population is estimated at over eight million individuals.
Rock Ptarmigans do not live in the Lower 48 states of the United States, although they are widespread in the tundra of Alaska.
Rock Ptarmigans have a wide distribution in Canada, although they are absent from most of the south. They do, however, extend down the west coast through British Columbia.
Rock Ptarmigans in the United Kingdom are limited to the mountains of the Scottish Highlands.
Rock Ptarmigan standing in the sparsely vegetated tundra
Rock Ptarmigans can live for at least twelve years, although their average lifespan is much shorter at about two years.
The Gyrfalcon is the Rock Ptarmigans' major enemy, although they are vulnerable to various other birds of prey, including Peregrine Falcons, Snowy Owls, and Golden Eagles. Weasels, Arctic Foxes, ravens, and gulls take their eggs and chicks.
Rock Ptarmigans are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act in the United Kingdom.
Rock Ptarmigans are thought to be decreasing, although they are not endangered. These game birds are assessed as a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List. Unfortunately, Ptarmigans have suffered a severe decline in the United Kingdom, where they are a red-listed species.
Rock Ptarmigan in natural habitat
Rock Ptarmigans nest on the ground, out in the open, but often next to a rock or shrub that provides shelter from the wind. The nest is a shallow scrape (1 - 7.5cm deep) made by the female and lined with feathers and plant material.
Rock Ptarmigans pair up around the end of May and lay their eggs soon after. Incubation takes 20 to 26 days, and the hatchlings leave the nest on their first day. These birds produce one brood per season.
Rock Ptarmigans lay 3 to 13 light pinkish-brown eggs with warm brown irregular spots. Each egg measures approximately 42 millimetres long and 30 millimetres wide.
Rock Ptarmigans are not known to mate for life but usually form a monogamous bond during each breeding season. However, polygyny is common, and some males may mate with up to four females.
Pair of Rock Ptarmigans in the snowy mountains
Male Rock Ptarmigans defend their territories enthusiastically, although they use posturing and chases more than physical conflict to solve disputes. However, fighting males may resort to striking at each other's heads with their wings and beaks.
Rock Ptarmigans sleep on the ground, often in shallow hollows and behind shrubs or boulders that provide shelter from the wind. They will also dig a sleeping hole in powdery snow, up to about a half meter deep.
Rock Ptarmigan resting between the rocks
Rock Ptarmigans are resident or short-distance migrants, often moving to lower altitudes or areas with less snow in the winter. They are more migratory or nomadic in Arctic Alaska and Canada, where they migrate in flocks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds.
Rock Ptarmigan migrate to lower altitudes and latitudes when thick snow blankets alpine and far northern breeding habitats. They can scratch through loose snow to feed but will seek areas where food is readily available.
Rock Ptarmigans are not native to the Contiguous United States, although they are widespread and native in Alaska.
Rock Ptarmigans are widespread native residents and migrants in Canada.
The Ptarmigan is native to the United Kingdom but has a small population and restricted range in the highest parts of Scotland.
Rock Ptarmigan in-flight over the snow-covered mountains
Rock Ptarmigan spend most of their time on the ground and usually move about on foot. However, they can fly fast and strong, often low to the ground and with rapid wingbeats interspersed with gliding. Some birds have travelled over a thousand kilometres on migration, so they have no problem flying longer distances.
Rock Ptarmigans are primarily vegetarian (over 99%), although they also take some snails, caterpillars, and other invertebrates in the warmer months.
Ptarmigans are low on the food chain and eaten by many birds of prey and mammals, including humans.
Ptarmigan is easy to pronounce once you learn that the ‘P’ is silent, as in psychology or raspberry. Their name is pronounced Taar-muh-gn
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