Photo: Glenn Bartley/Vireo

Willow Ptarmigan

Lagopus lagopus

Aptly named, this common northern grouse is closely associated with thickets of dwarf willow on the tundra at all seasons. It occurs in isolated pairs at the beginning of the nesting season, but gathers in flocks in winter. Molting its body feathers twice a year, it goes from mottled brown or gray in summer to white in winter, so that it's camouflaged at all seasons. In winter its feet are heavily feathered to the tips of the toes; these feathers increase the surface area of the feet and act as "snowshoes," allowing the birds to walk easily over fresh drifts.
Conservation status Goes through population cycles, abundant in some years and scarce in others; generally common over its vast northern range, and mostly remote from the impacts of human disturbance.
Family Pheasants and Grouse
Habitat Tundra, willow scrub, muskeg. Generally found north of timberline, in lower wet tundra with abundant thickets of dwarf willow. Also in brushy openings within northern forest. In mountainous regions, lives near timberline or in open valleys in shrubby willow growth.
Aptly named, this common northern grouse is closely associated with thickets of dwarf willow on the tundra at all seasons. It occurs in isolated pairs at the beginning of the nesting season, but gathers in flocks in winter. Molting its body feathers twice a year, it goes from mottled brown or gray in summer to white in winter, so that it's camouflaged at all seasons. In winter its feet are heavily feathered to the tips of the toes; these feathers increase the surface area of the feet and act as "snowshoes," allowing the birds to walk easily over fresh drifts.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, breeding
  • adult female, breeding
  • adult male, spring
  • adult, nonbreeding
Feeding Behavior

Forages while walking by picking at vegetation, nipping off food with bill.


Eggs

5-14, usually about 7. Red when first laid, but dry to Blotchy blackish brown with some pale areas. Incubation is by female only, 21-22 days. Young: Downy chicks leave nest with female a few hours after hatching. Female tends young (and broods them while they are small), but young feed themselves. Young capable of short flights at age of 10-12 days, but not full-grown for several weeks; remain with adult female until late summer.


Young

Downy chicks leave nest with female a few hours after hatching. Female tends young (and broods them while they are small), but young feed themselves. Young capable of short flights at age of 10-12 days, but not full-grown for several weeks; remain with adult female until late summer.

Diet

Mostly buds, twigs, leaves, and seeds. Adult almost entirely vegetarian, feeding heavily on willow, alder, birch, and other plants, eating the buds, leaves, and twigs. Also eats many berries, such as crowberry and blueberry, and eats some insects. Regularly swallows grit to help with digesting rough plant material. Young chicks feed mostly on insects and spiders at first, soon beginning to eat more plant matter.


Nesting

In spring, male defends territory by displaying: raises red combs over eyes, throws head back, fans tail, droops wings, and struts about. Makes short flights, circling back to starting point while uttering harsh call. Nest site on ground, sometimes completely in open but often under willow shrub, grass clump, or other shelter. Nest (built by female) a shallow depression lined with grass, leaves, moss, feathers.

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

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

Migration

Seems to be less migratory than Rock Ptarmigan on average, but sometimes appears well south of the breeding range in winter.

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Migration

Seems to be less migratory than Rock Ptarmigan on average, but sometimes appears well south of the breeding range in winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
In flight, courting males have a loud, staccato go-back, go-back, go-back, and other guttural calls.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.