Photo: A. Binns/Vireo

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Lagopus leucura

Far above timberline in mountains of the west lives this elusive little ptarmigan, the smallest member of the grouse family in North America. While the other ptarmigan are strictly northern, this one follows the cordillera of the high Rockies as far south as New Mexico. Easily overlooked, it may crouch motionless as hikers pass close by.
Conservation status Most of habitat is remote from human disturbance, so still present in most of original range. Has been introduced into new sites including some in Oregon, California, and Utah.
Family Pheasants and Grouse
Habitat Rocky alpine tundra; mountains above timberline. Summers above timberline, on rocky slopes with low vegetation (a few inches tall), or damp alpine meadows near streams or snowfields. Sometimes in stunted growth just below timberline. Elevations from under 4,000' in Alaska to almost 14,000' in Colorado. In winter often moves slightly lower, to areas where willows and other plants extend above snow.
Far above timberline in mountains of the west lives this elusive little ptarmigan, the smallest member of the grouse family in North America. While the other ptarmigan are strictly northern, this one follows the cordillera of the high Rockies as far south as New Mexico. Easily overlooked, it may crouch motionless as hikers pass close by.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, breeding
  • adult female, breeding
  • adult, winter
  • adult, winter
  • adult male, breeding
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

Forages while walking, nipping off pieces of plants with bill. Feeds in flocks at most times of year (from late summer through winter).


Eggs

2-8, usually about 5. Pale cinnamon, spotted with dark brown. Incubation is by female only, 22-26 days. Young: Downy chicks leave nest a few hours after hatching. Female tends young and leads them to food, but young feed themselves. If danger threatens brood, female puts on distraction display, running in zigzags with wings dragging. Young can fly at 10-12 days, reach full size at 12-14 weeks. Brood gradually breaks up in fall, young birds joining winter flocks.


Young

Downy chicks leave nest a few hours after hatching. Female tends young and leads them to food, but young feed themselves. If danger threatens brood, female puts on distraction display, running in zigzags with wings dragging. Young can fly at 10-12 days, reach full size at 12-14 weeks. Brood gradually breaks up in fall, young birds joining winter flocks.

Diet

Mostly buds, leaves, twigs, and seeds. Adults are almost entirely vegetarian, feeding on all parts of low alpine plants, especially buds, twigs, and leaves of willows. Also favors birch, alder, sedges, crowberry, and others. Very young chicks eat mostly insects at first, soon switching to more plants. Regularly swallows grit to help with digesting rough plant material.


Nesting

For breeding season, males and females defend individual territories. In courtship display, male raises red combs above eyes, spreads tail, struts and bows. Male usually remains with female until sometime during incubation. Nest site is on ground, usually in rocky area, matted willow thicket, or sedge meadow. Nest (built by female) is shallow depression lined with plant material, with a few feathers added.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Most birds move to slightly lower elevation in winter, with some traveling as much as 14 miles from summer to winter range. Females tend to move farther than males.

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Migration

Most birds move to slightly lower elevation in winter, with some traveling as much as 14 miles from summer to winter range. Females tend to move farther than males.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
High-pitched "creaking" notes and soft low clucks.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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