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A photo of a Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), male
Willow Ptarmigan, Male

Willow Ptarmigan

Lagopus lagopus

The Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), know as the Red Grouse in the UK, is a bird of the grouse subfamily Tetraoninae within the pheasant family Phasianidae. It is a medium to large ground-dwelling bird, the most numerous of the ptarmigan species. Adults range from 35 to 44 centimeters in length with a wingspan of 60 to 65 centimeters, and weigh between 430 to 810 grams. They possess a deep chest, a fairly long neck, a broad bill, short feathered legs, and a moderately short rounded tail. Seasonal plumage changes are a hallmark of this species, with summer colors being largely brown with dappled patterns, and winter attire being predominantly white with black tail feathers.

Identification Tips

In summer, males exhibit a marbled brown plumage with a reddish hue on the neck and breast, a black tail, and white wings and underparts. They also sport a red semicircular comb above each eye, which becomes more pronounced during the breeding season. Females are similar but have smaller combs and brown feathers interspersed among the white on their bellies. In winter, both sexes don white plumage, save for black outer tail feathers, while wing feathers remain white year-round. In the British Isles a Willow Ptarmigan subspeies called the Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) is characterised by its reddish brown plumage and lack of white winter plumage.

Habitat

The Willow Ptarmigan inhabits subalpine and subarctic environments, including sparse pine and birch forests, thickets, heather moors, tundra, and mountain slopes. In winter, some birds may descend to lower altitudes for shelter.

Distribution

This bird boasts a circum-boreal distribution, found across northern Europe, Scandinavia, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and parts of the British Isles. It is notably the state bird of Alaska.

Behaviour

Males are territorial and perform courtship displays such as aerial maneuvers and tail-fanning. Both parents are involved in rearing the precocial chicks, which feed on insects and young plants, while adults are herbivorous, consuming leaves, flowers, buds, seeds, and berries in summer, and buds and twigs of shrubs in winter.

Song & Calls

The Willow Ptarmigan's vocalizations are low-pitched and guttural, including chuckles, clucking sounds, and various calls during display, such as rattles and barking noises.

Breeding

Nesting occurs in spring, with females laying clutches of four to ten eggs in ground scrapes. Both parents care for the young, with males also playing a protective role.

Similar Species

The Willow Ptarmigan can be distinguished from the rock ptarmigan by its larger size, thicker bill, and preference for habitats below the tree line. The white-tailed ptarmigan is smaller, has a white tail, and resides permanently above the tree line.

Diet and Feeding

The Willow Ptarmigan's diet varies seasonally. In summer, it includes a variety of plant materials, while in winter, it primarily consists of willow buds, twigs, and catkins. Juveniles initially consume insects before transitioning to a herbivorous diet.

Conservation status

The Willow Ptarmigan is classified as "Least Concern" by the IUCN, with an estimated global population of forty million individuals. Despite suspected slight declines, the species remains widespread and relatively common in its remote habitat.

Willow Ptarmigan Sounds

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Willow Ptarmigan Fun Facts

Did you know?
Male Willow Ptarmigans courtship displays involve aerial manoeuvres, strutting and tail-fanning.

Willow Ptarmigans on Birda

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