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Rock Ptarmigan

Known for their beautiful white and brown plumage, these game birds live on mountainsides and in cold climates.

The Rock Ptarmigan is a ember of the Grouse family,  It shows extreme difference in winter and summer plumages.  Seldom reported in the U.S, outside of Alaska.


Description of the Rock Ptarmigan


The Rock Ptarmigan is a chunky grouse with feathered legs and feet. Its plumage varies greatly by season.
-Dark brown upperparts.
-Red eye comb.
-White belly.


Mottled brown, black and white above and below.

Seasonal change in appearance

Rock Ptarmigan

Photograph © Glenn Bartley

Winter birds become all white.


Juveniles resemble breeding females.


Alpine areas and tundra.


Buds, leaves, and seeds.


Forages by walking.

Rock Ptarmigan

Male. Photograph © Glenn Bartley


Resident from Alaska to Greenland across northern Canada. Also occurs in Russia and Europe.

Fun Facts

Rock Ptarmigan are often very tame and will allow a close approach.

Female Rock Ptarmigan do not defend territories.


Barks, growls, and rattles are occasionally given.


Similar Species


The nest is plant-lined depression on the ground.

Number: 4-13.
Color: Buff with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the female for some time.


Bent Life History of the Rock Ptarmigan

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Rock Ptarmigan – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Much has yet to be learned about the relationships of the vanous forms of the rock ptarrnigan in North America and their distribution. There have been three forms named in Greenland, one in Newfoundland, three on the mainland, and six on the Aleutian Islands. With the possible exception of some of the Aleutian forms, which are quite distinct, all might well be regarded as subspecies of the European Lagopus mat us. Of the three mainland forms Harry S. Swarth (1926) has made an extensive study, the results of which are quite enlightening. The three forms are: A gray-colored bird, rupestris, a ruddy-colored form, kelloggae, and a dark-colored form, dixoni. He says of their ranges:

First, there is a gray-colored bird that extends from Labrador westward to the coast ranges of northern British Columbia. In the east it apparently extends northward into the Arctic regions; it also occurs on islands north of Mackenzie, but elsewhere in the west it is restricted to the southern part of the region covered by the species Lagopus rapestr is. Second, there is a ruddycolored form that occupies almost the entire mainland of Alaska and atends eastward along the Arctic coast ahunt to the one hundredth meridian. Third, there is a dark-colored form with a rather limited range in the coastal region of southeastern Alaska.

The latest contribution on the subject is a paper by P. A. Taverner (1929) based on a careful study of 105 adults of both sexes and young. Even with this quantity of material, the results are not wholly satisfactory, because of lack of adequate secies of breeding birds in comparable plumages and because of a number of puzzling specimens that seem to have wandered far away from their normal breeding ranges. Taverner, however, has recognized two wideranging mainland forms, a southern, generally grayish bird (rupeetris), ranging from northern British Columbia to Newfoundland, and a northern, generally yellowish bird (keiloggae). ranging from the interior of Alaska to northwestern Greenland. I recognize this revision and include weichi in the grayish form (rupestris).

It is the wide-ranging gray rock ptarmigan that we are now considering. Lucien M. Turner, in his unpublished notes, has given us the best contribution to the life history of this species. Bendire (1892) quoted some of these notes under Reinhardt’s ptarmigan, but, for reasons stated under that form, I prefer to use them here. As to the haunts of these birds he says:

They prefer more open ground and rarely straggle even into the skirts of the wooded tracts. The hilltops and “barrens” (hence often called barren ground bird) are their favorite resorts. As these tracts are more extensive in the northern portions of Labrador and Ungava, these birds are there very abundant. During the summer months they are quite scarce in the vicinity of Fort Chimo, retiring to the Interior and the hills of George River for that season. In the month of May the nuptial season arrives and is continued until about June, when nesting and laying begin. The birds are by this time scattered, each pair now taking possession of a large tract of stunted vegetation, among which they make their nest and rear their young. I was never able to procure the eggs of this species.

As to the haunts of rock ptarmigan in Newfoundland, all recent observers seem to agree that “Welch’s ptarmigan” is confined, at present at least, to the barren tops of the highest hills along the west and south coasts. Dr. G. K. Noble (1919) says that “all of the Welch’s Ptarmigan observed were found on the very highest ranges of the Lewis Hills. These are composed mostly of syenite, very much weathered or fragmented.” Ludlow Griscom (1926) agrees with him that this species “is found only on the highest diorite and syenite rock barriers”; he found it also “on the summit of Blomidon.” J. B. Whitaker, who lived in Newfoundland for many years, says in some notes he sent to me:

These birds are distributed through the high tundras and hills of Newfoundland. In the middle section of the country they are not nearly so numerous as along the hills nearer the coast. They remain on the high barrens far more persistently than Allen’s ptarmigan, but It was quite a rare event to see any on the lower level even during severe winters; this statement applies .to central Newfoundland. I am told on good authority that along the west coast, Cape Ray especially, they come down to sea level in numbers during the fall and winter months.

From extensive information recently gathered, I should extend the range of the rock ptarmigan, in Newfoundland, to include suitable highlands along the south coast from Fortune Bay to Cape Ray, with several records for Gaiftopsail and Kettys Brook on the railway line. Probably the whole of the northern peninsula, north of Bonne Bay and White Bay, should be included also. I am told that 80 per cent of the ptarmigan that come into the market from this southwestern region are “rockers.”

F. Seymour IHersey, who spent two months in Newfoundland in the fall of 1913 and collected 13 specimens of “Welch’s ptarmigan ” on the Lewis Hills, contributed the following notes on its distribution and haunts:

Welch’s ptarmigan is much more local in its distribution than Allen’s. I did not find it at Cape Ray or Gafftopsail, and I confidently expected to find It there, hut notwithstanding repented hunting over many miles of ground I found Allen’s only. After I collected in the Lewis Hills I returned to Gafftopsail and showed my birds to the few people who lived at this lonely place, and all agreed that they had never seen a ptarmigan like them. One man who hunted and trapped a great deal did state that they occasionally shot a small ptarmigan in winter which I believe is Welch’s.

The only birds I obtained were collected in the Lewis Hills, which, at the place where my collecting was done, run parallel with the beach and only a short way back from it. They have the form of a continuous ridge, rather than of individual hills, and rise abruptly at a steep angle, to a height of several hundred feet. The sides, as ~vell as the strip from the shore to their base, are xvell wooded with trees of fair size. The top is undulating and stretches away for long distances without descent, which makes hunting comparatively easy. Individual hills are indicated by slightly Increased eleva. tions of the general level, but there are no distinct and separate hills.

The whole surface is devoid of trees, but the ground is ~vell covered with low-creeping vegetation, prostrate blueberry bushes, mosses, and grass. Ia more protected spots are patches of dwarf spruces. These are usually 1½ to 3 feet high and are so twisted and interlaced that it is often possible to walk across a patch of them without breaking through.

My first day In these hills was foggy and I got no birds. Once I heard a ptarmigan call and folloxviag the sound come upon three Allen’s. The next day was clear and crisp with a good breeze and only scraps of fog. We had been tramping for several hours with little success when we came to an elevation thickly strewn with large granirelike rocks of a very dark gray color. My guide halted and whispered that if we went cautiously he thought we would soon see some birds. It uns not long before I made out a ptarmlgan perched on a rock, and very soon after seeing the first one I discovered several others. Their dark colors blended with the gray rocks, but they were nevertheless rather easy to see. As there was no concealment we walked straight toward them and had no dilliculty in getting within gunshot. At the first shot they arose, flew a few hundred yards, and alighted again among the rocks. Leaving the guide to retrieve the birds I had shot, I followed the flock and soon flushed them again. This was done several times until I had collected a number of specimens, when the remainder flew out of sight.

In the Flatbay Brook country where I later camped were some high rounded hills. My guide stated there were ptarmigan to be found well up toward their summits, but only in winter, when they had formed intd large flocks, could they be successfully hunted. I ~vas also told they were to he found in the mountains about Fortune Bay. Judging from my experience this species Is restricted to the tops of certain ranges of hills, mainly near the coast, and they are partial to areas covered with dark gray rocks rather than the lighter colored rocks where Allen’s ptarmigan is so abundant.

Spring: Bernhard Hantzsch (1929), referring to the spring migration at Killinek, northern Labrador, writes:

Suddenly in early spring, mostly in April, seldom sooner, at times not until well into May, the wanderers appear from the south. Usually at first rather small advance posts are established. A short time after that the whole throng of birds follows. As I was assured by the missionaries, Messrs. Waldmaun and Perrett, who each have passed a year up to 1906 in Killinek, by Mr. 3. Kane who lived there six or seven years, as well as the Eskimos of the neighborhood itgreeing, countless large flocks of these birds appear at times, usually passing through rather high in the air. For hours they hasten in many thousands through the sky, so that their numbers cause astonishment. Many flights of the kind are observed from the same place. The birds mostly fly directly across Hudson Strait without delaying. This is almost always covered with ice in the spring and little to be distinguished from the land. The flight Is so swift and high, that Missionary Perrett was In doubt whether the hirds were migrating to Greenland, which can, however, be safely denied, according to the unanimous reports from there. The Canadian Neptune Expedition 1903: 1904 observed a great migration of these birds at Fullerton, northwest Hudson Bay. Only a small percentage of the ptarmigan make a stop In our region In order to rest up and hunt food. The forerunners and the stragglers stop more frequently than the main swarm, the latter having perhaps not much farther to go to reach their breeding places. The birds which stop, halt mostly In flocks of ten to thirty, occasionally still more together, and they usually do not act particularly shyly. When contrary winds and hunger tire the creatures out, they are so tame that they can he killed with the long dog-whip. The captured birds form a much-preferred article of food for whites and Eskimos, indeed the latter devour even the entrails, especially when these are warm.

Courtship: Turner describes the courtship o~ the rock ptarmigan in his notes as follows:

The mating sensoa begins in May, and during this period the male acts In the strangest manner to gain the affection of his chosen mate. He does not launch high In air and croak like the willow ptarmigan. but runs around his prospective bride with tail spread, wings either dragging like those of the common turkey, or else his head and neck stretched out, and breast in contact with the ground, pushing himself in this manner by the feet, which are extended hehind. The male at this time ruffles every feather of his body, t~vists his neck in various positions, and the supraorhital processes are swollen and erect. He utters a most peculiar sound, something like a growling kurr-kut-r; as the passion of the display increases the bird performs the most astonishing antics, such as leaping In the air without effort of wings, rolling over and over, acting withal as If beside himself with ardor.

The males engage in most desperate battles; the engagement lasts for hours or until one is utterly exhausted, the feathers of head, neck, and breast strewing the ground. A maneuver is for the pursued bird to lead the other off a great distance and suddenly fly back to the female, who sits or feeds as unconcerned as it Is possible for a bird to do. She acts thoroughly the most heartless coquette, while he is a most passionately devoted lover. He would rather die than forsake her side, and often places himself between the hunter and her, uttering notes of warning for her to escape, while attention is drawn to him who is the more conspicuous.

Nesting: The nest of the rock ptarmigan is a very Simple affair, a hollow in the ground or moss of the open tundra, lined with grasses, mosses, or other convenient material, and a few feathers of the bird. It may be partially sheltered beside a hummock, tuft of grass, or low bush, but it is usually in plain sight. But Roderick MacFarlane (1908) says:

It proved no easy matter, however, to find the nests of this species, as the plumage of the birds and the color of the eggs both strongly resembled the neighbouring vegetation. At the same time the female sat so very closely that more than one was caught on the nest, and I recollect an instance where the parent, on the very near approach of our party, must have crouched as much as possible in the hope that she might not he noticed, which would have happened had not one of the smartest of our Indian assistants caught a glance of her eye.

Eggs: The eggs of the different races of rock ptarmigan are all much alike &nd are very well described by MacFarlane and Brandt under Kellogg’s ptarmigan, but the six sets in my collection show some types different from those described by others. The ground colors vary from “clay color” or “pinkish ~ to “pale pinkish buff,” “cream-buff,” or “cartridge buff.” They average more heavily marked than willow ptarmigans’ eggs; two sets are nearly covered with great blotches and splashes of very dark browns, chestnut-brown” to “bone brown,” or nearly black; others are marked like willow ptarmigans’ eggs with similar colors. I also have one set of 12 eggs. The measurements of 99 eggs in the United States National Museum average 42 by 30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 45 by 31, 44 by 32.5, 39 by 29, and 41 by 28 millimeters, including eggs of both mainland forms.

Young: Turner says in his notes:

When the young are with the parents they rely upon their color to hide themselves among the nearly similar vegetation from which they procure their food. I am certain I have walked directly over young birds that were well able to fly. If the parent birds are first shot, the entire number of young may be secured, as they will not fly until nearly trodden upon, and then only for a few yards, where they may easily be seen. I have found on two occasions an adult female with a brood of 13 young. All the flocks were secured without trouble. At other times only three or four young would be found with both parents. The young are very tender when first hatched; no amount of most careful attention will induce them to eat, and after only a few hours’ captivity they die. I could never keep them alive more than 12 hours. The changeable weather, sudden squalls of snow or rain, must be the death of scores of these delicate creatures. Their note is a soft piping pc-pc-ye, uttered several times, and has the same sound as that of the young bobwhite, CoUn.ue v4rgisianus.

Captain MacMillan tells me that ptarmigan occur in flocks about Bowdoin Harbor, Baflin Island, all through the breeding season, and the residents say that these are young birds, which do not breed until their second spring,

Plumages: The newly hatched chick of the rock ptarmigan is much like that of the willow ptarmigan but is usually somewhat paler and grayer. The crown patch is “chocolate,” mixed with and heavily bordered by black; the rest of the head, neck, and breast is ” cream: buff ~ or ” chamois,” shading off to ” colonial buff ~’ on the chin and underparts; a spot on the forehead, a rictal stripe, and a broad auricular stripe are black, the remaining upper parts are heavily blotched and banded with black, “chamois,”” honey yellow,” and “tawny.”

The juvenal plumage begins to appear almost immediately, the wings coming first, in which the two outer primaries on each wing are ~vhite; these white, juvenal primaries are retained all through the first year. Young birds reach the flight stage before they are half grown. In the full juvenal plumage the young birds are darker, more heavily barred, and have less rufous than in the same stage of the willow ptarmigan. The sexes are alike. The entire upper parts are variegated with black, brownish black, ” ochraceous-buff,” “ochraceous-tawny,” and white; the feathers are mainly black, tipped, barred, edged; or notched with the buffs; many feathers in the mantle have a terminal white spot; the breast and flanks are from ” cinnamonbuff” to “pinkish buff,” fading out to whitish on the chin and belly, spotted on the chin, throat, and neck, and barred on the breast and flanks with sepia or dusky. About the end of July the molt into the autumn plumage begins; this is also called the tutelar or preliminary winter plumage; it is common to both young and adult birds and is a transition plumage between the summer and the white winter plumages. The molts overlap and feathers of all three plumages are often seen in the same bird. During August and September the birds are molting almost continuously. The colored body feathers of both young and adult birds in this autumn plumage are much alike and are quite different from the feathers of the juvenal or summer adult plumages, being more finely vermniculated or sprinkled, less heavily barred, and therefore lighter in effect. The black tail feathers are acquired at this postjuvenal molt, which is nearly complete, and, according to Dr. Jonathan Dwight (1900), “the wings (except the median coverts and inner remiges) become white together with the abdominal wedge of the ventral tract and all posterior to it including the flanks, legs and feet; while the head, throat, breast, sides and back become more or less dusky according to the extent of the renewal in different individuals and probably according to the latitude.” From this time on the colored feathers are gradually replaced by white feathers, until the full, first winter plumage is acquired by this supplementary molt. This is wholly white except for the black rectrices, and in some young males there are traces of black lores. In adult males the black lores arc complete and in some old females there are traces of them.

In the far north, where the ground is not wholly free from snow, the prenuptial molt, in both young and old birds, is much delayed and is more or less incomplete, as the short arctic summer gives hardly time for the birds to acquire and shed the summer and autumn plumages. But farther south, where the birds live on a wholly bare ground, the molt of the body plumage is more complete, and the sexes become distinguishable in plumage, as the birds are now practically adult. In this and subsequent nuptial plumages the males assume a coarsely vermiculated and mottled dress of grayish buff and dusky, except that the wings, tail, abdomen, and feet remain as in winter. The females make a more extensive molt, becoming coarsely mottled and barred with buff and black, but retaining the white remiges, white belly, and black rectrices.

Soon after this nuptial, or summer, plumage is acquired, the molt into the autumn plumage begins, which helps to make the complete molt into the white winter plumage. The autumn plumage is much like that of the young bird and is very finely vermiculated in both sexes, instead of coarsely vermiculated or barred, as in summer. The sexes are now much alike again. These two plumages are well illustrated in the colored plates published by A. L. V. Manniche (1910).

Food: In summer the food of the rock ptarmigan includes a number of insects, but it is made up more largely of leaves, buds, and berries, such as crowberries, whortleberries, bearberries, and the tender leaves and buds of birches and willows. Numerous seeds are eaten, as well as sphagnum and other mosses, and the leaves of Labrador-tea. In winter, when food is scarce, they have to feed on buds and twigs and the seeds of such weeds as they find above the snow. Their long, strong claws, which are highly developed in winter, enable them to dig down through the snow to reach the mosses and such of the above plants as they can find.

Behavior: Turner says in his notes:

Their flight Is rapid, and when flying with a stiff wind they require the quickest.shot to stop them. The heat of the wing is so rapid that it Is scarcely discernible, and when the bird is sailing the somewhat decurved wings are held almost motionless as It rolls from side to side. The direction of flight Is always in a straight line, rising only sufficiently to clear a patch of trees or Intervening ridge, the latter at times passed over only by a few Inches In height, to the plain or valley beyond. Sometimes they will fly more than a mile before alighting and at other times only a few rods, depending altogether on the character of the weather. If it Is a cold, blustering day with much snow drifting or falling, these birds dislike to take flight, and by using a slight amount of discretion the birds of an entire flock may be all secured, but if It is calm and cold, or warm, they take flight and at this time are rarely approached within shooting distance. Warm, damp, weather with gusty wind is best suited for hunting this ptarmigan.

I have often been amused at these birds’ actions when descending from a high bluff to the level ground below. If there is a place that gradually slopes to the bottom, they seem to prefer to slide or tumble down rather than take flight. Just back of my house, and only a hundred or so yards, there was a bluff nearly 100 feet in height. This was the side of a level tract of ground above, and to it great numbers of “rockers” came every morning either to sun themselves or to descend to the lower ground nearer the houses and beyond. Their growling and “snoring” could he heard nearly every morning. I often watched them descend. Some Individuals would push their feet forward and with outspread tail on the snow slide to the bottom, while others would roll and tumble over and over until they came to the level ground, where they ran as unconcernedly as birds could do.

Voice: Mr. Whitaker likens the call of this ptarmigan to “the tattoo of a woodpecker on an especially mellow tree.” Mr. Hersey describes it as “a low guttural croak reminding me of the spring song of the crow.” 0. J. Murie has sent me the following notes:

When slightly alarmed or annoyed by too close approach, these birds uttered a strange sound, like a short interrupted purr: ps-rt! prrt! This usually indicated that they were about to fly. Later, in spring, I heard a more prolonged utterance, possibly the “crowing” of this quiet bird. On several occasions in May, when I disturbed a group of these birds, some of them produced this sound, which might be described as a rolling “snore “: k-r-r-r-a: r-r-r-ak: r-r-r-a, plainly varied by a change In the middle which resolves it Into three parts. Once when I shot a male for a specimen, the female called with a “whining” note.

Doctor Noble (1919) writes:

On August 24th, during a heavy rainstorm, while making my way across one of these fields of grotesquely shaped stones, I came suddenly upon an old male bird. It had just emerged from between two great blocks, and stood looking at me. Alter a few moments’ hesitation, it stretched out its neck and gave a long cackle, unlike any call I had ever heard. It was a crescendo of clucks, somewhat pheasant-like in quality: lctsk, kuk, kisk, kuk: each syllable stronger and of a higher pitch than the last.

Ludlow Griscom (1926) had a similar experience:

An old grey cock suddenly appeared on the top of a rock in a field of huge boulders, not more than fifty feet from me. It stretched its neck, cackled loudly and long, and exhibited no fear at all as I drew nearer. It then disappeared, but for some seconds I could hear it clucking to itself in great dissatisfaction as it threaded its way through the maze of its chosen home.

Fall: From the northern portions of its range the rock ptarmigan makes quite extensive migrations. Capt.. Moses Bartlett told me, and others have confirmed it, that during the last of September beginning with the first heavy snow squalls and lasting up to about the middle of October, a heavy flight of ptarmigan occurs across Hudson Straits to Cape Chidley, hundreds of birds being in sight at one time. Often they alight on ships and are easily caught. A similar flight occurs from Ellesmere Island to Greenland. In northern Labrador, according to Bernhard Hantzsch (1929), the flight is irregular. He says:

In the middle of September, 1905, countless flocks are said to have flown southward over Killinek. In 1906 the first ptarmigan were not observed until 28th September. From 4th October they appeared somewhat more numerously in a heavy, driving snow and some cold, but rather large hunting parties did not get many, particularly as they could not yet travel in the light fall of snow. Whether the unusually long and mild fall kept the birds in their northern dwelling places, or induced them to choose another migration route, must remain unknown.

Winter: M any rock ptarmigan evidently spend the winter in the lowlands of Ungava, mainly near the coasts, for Turner says:

During the summer months they are quite scarce in the vicinity of Fort Chimo, retiring to the interior and to the hills cf Georges River viciuiiy for that season, to return about the first of November. This month will be considered as a starting point for their wanderings. Then they appear In full winter plumage and In flocks of various sizes, often numbering over 200 individuals. They resort to the open ground and rock ridges where the snow Is more apt to drift from, or during severest weather they retreat to the sheltered places amongst the bushes of alder and willow along the streams and gullies. These situations afford food of berries of various kinds, which yet remain on the stems of prostrate shrubs, twigs and buds of dwarf birch, alder, and willow, together with a few blades of grass. These ptarmigan remain until the latter part of March and disappear as suddenly as they came.

0. J. Murie writes to me as follows:

During winter the rock ptarmigan along the eastern coast of Hudson Bay were very tame and easily approached, much more so than the willow ptarmigan. The latter birds confined themselves generally to willows or alders or even in the edge of the woods. C. rupeeths, on the other hand, were generally found in the open or rocky slopes, feeding on the willow tips protruding from the snow or the berries of Em petrurn, In spots where the ground was blown bare of snow. At times the feathers around the beak v~ere stained purple as a result of feeding on this fruit. Even when resting these hardy birds did not always seek shelter. Once I found a group of two or three crouching on the bar4 top of a little.rise~ all bunched up In a little ball and facing a persistent, cold north wind. One of them remained in the same position while I approached within about 4 or 5 feet to photograph It, finally walking off quietly when I reached out still nearer. Generally this species was found in the shelter of a little bush, a single stunted tree, or small clump, hut not often in heavy cover.

Enemies: Hantzsch (1929) writes:

The flights of ptarmigan are accompanied by birds of prey; especially the proud Gyrfalcon, the smaller Duck Hawk, and the beautiful Snowy Owl follow them. If the flight is smaller, as in the autumn of 1906, then these birds are observed only in small numbers. In addition, foxes assemble, particularly Vulpes legopws (Arctic Fox), in places where there are many Ptarmigan, and all the other beasts of prey, in like manner, probably take a share at the appearance of our much desired bird.

Game: Hantzsch describes the ptarmigan hunt as follows:

The arrival of the first flocks of these birds is greeted as an event of the day, which controls all the conversation. Now everyone cleans his gun, and even the little eight or ten-year-old chap is happy, whenever a gun is occasionally loaned him. If the ptarmigan appear in great numbers, an occurrence that varies much from year to year, then each one who has a gun and ammunition, from the missionary to the youngest Eskimo lad, betakes himself out into the wild mountainous landscapes. And the district is so large for the few people: at the most 15: 20 men assemble near the Killinek mission station: that no one is in another’s way. They prefer to go alone or in pairs with the dogsleds, with a young man along for assistance, in order to overtake the birds more quickly and be able to take the bag home more conveniently. In the few days when the birds are present, a good hunter is often able to shoot several hundred. To be sure the hunt is strenuous. They travel across the wide, snowy landscape until they see a flock flying up somewhere. Sitting down they do not see the ptarmigan until rather near, as I convinced myself. The hunter now usually springs from the halting sled and approaches the birds in order to get one or two goods shots at them. The unwounded birds rise at once and fly away, and it is now a matter of paying attention to where they stop again. After the game has been put on the sleds, they journey farther, seeking either the part of the flock which has flown away, or new bands. Now and then they see several at the same time, at other times they have to wait a long time before coming across a single one.

0. J. Murie says in his notes:

The Indians and Eskimos take advantage of a trait of these birds to trap them. Prarmigan have a tendency to gather on a conspicuous dark spot on the level white expanse of snow, such as an exposed sandbar. The natives stretch some kind of netting over a frame, which is tilted up over an exposed plot of ground or a spot where sand or earth has been spread on the snow. As the birds gather under the net a string is pulled, which allows the net to fall. The trapped birds are then killed by biting them in the neck.

The rock ptarmigan is an important game bird in Newfoundland, as about 20 per cent of the ptarmigan that come into the St. Johns market are “rockers.” But evidently the hunters prefer the larger willow ptarmigan, which are, perhaps, more easily obtained. From reliable parties who have hunted in the vicinity of Quarry and Gafitopsail, as well as on certain sections between Fortune Bay and Cape Ray, I have learned that, when they have been unsuccessful in their hunt for willow ptarmigan, they turn their attention to the hilly sections of the same locality to find “rockers.” Sometimes they would go to hunt for willow ptarmigan and not bother about “rock~ unless their hunt for willow ptarmigan was unsuccessful; then they would climb to hilly sections of the same locality where they could always be sure of getting rock ptarmigan.

Range: Alaska (including the Aleutian Islands), northern Canada, Greenland, and Newfoundland.

The range of the rock ptarmigan extends north to Alaska ( Prince of Wales, Point Barrow, Humphrey Point, and Demarcation Point) ; northwestern Mackenzie (Cape Bathurst, Franklin Bay, and Pierce Point); northern Franklin (Winter Harbor, Gaesefiord, Lake Hazen, and Floeburg Beach); and northern Greenland (Thank God Harbor, Newman Bay, and Lockwood Island). East to Greenland (Lockwood Island, Sabine Island, Clavering Island, and Ivigtut); and Newfoundland (mountain ranges). South to Newfoundland (Fortune Bay to Cape Ray); Anticosti Island (Fox Bay); northern Quebec (Fort Chimo and Sorehead River) ; southern Franklin (Cape Fullerton and Bernard Harbor) ; and central British Columbia (Ingenika River and Ninemile Mountain). West to British Columbia (Ninemile Mountain); and Alaska (Baranof Island, St. Lazaria Island, Mount Edgecumbe, Port Frederick, Hinchinbrook Island, Montague Island, English Bay, Unalaska Island, Atka Island, Adak Island, Tanaga Island, Amchitka Island, Kiska Island, Attu Island, Askinuk Mountains, Nome, Teller, and Cape Prince of Wales). It is of casual occurrence in summer on Bonaventure Island, Quebec. where one was taken July 8, 1922 (Stoddard).

Although the majority of the rock ptarmigan withdraw from the extreme northern part of their summer range upon the advent of severe winter weather, they do not appear to retreat beyond the southern limits of the breeding range. Instead, a concentration is noticed at some of the more southern points, as at Ivigtut, Greenland. Among late departure dates in the nortbern part of the range are: Franklin, Floeburg Beach, September 29. and Winter Harbor, October 15. The species has been observed to return to this general area as follows: Franklin, Newman Bay, March 9, Floeburg Beach, March 11, Thank God Harbor, March 24, Discovery Harbor, April 10, and Winter Harbor, May 12.

The range as above described is for the entire species, under which 10 subspecies are recognized. True rupestris is found from Newfoundland and the Ungava Peninsula west to northern Britisb Columbia and southern Yukon; Reinhardt’s ptarmigan (La gopus r. reinhardi) is found in southwestern Greenland, north to the vicinity of Disco; Nelson’s ptarmigan (Lagopus r. nelsoni) is found on Unalaska, Akutan, and Unimak Islands, Alaska, and also on some of the other eastern Aleutian Islands; Turner’s ptarmigan (Lagopus r. atkhensis) is confined to Atka Island, of the Aleutian group; Chamberlain’s ptarmigan (Lago pus r. chamberlaini) is found on Adak Island of the Aleutians; Sanford’s ptarmigan (Lago pus r. sanfordi) is confined to Tanaga Island of the Aleutians; Townsend’s ptarmigan ~Lagopus r. townsendi) is found on Kiska Island, of the Aleutian chain; Evermann’s ptarmigan (Lagopus r. ever’manni) is found on Attu Island, of the Aleutians; Kellogg’s ptarmigan (La qc’pus r. kelloggae) occupies northwestern Greenland, the Arctic Islands (except Baffin Island), northern Yukon, the interior of Alaska, and the west Arctic coast to Coronation Gulf; and Dixon’s ptarmigan (Lago~U8 ~. dia~oni) is found on the alpine summits of Baranof, Chichagof, and Admiralty Islands, and the adjacent Alaskan mainland.

Egg dates: Northern Alaska: 15 records, May 28 to July 29; 8 records, June 9 to July 1. Arctic Canada: 23 records, June 3 to July 9; 12 records, June 17 to 28. Iceland: 18 records, May 7 to July 21; 9 records, May 20 to June 19. Greenland: 17 records, May 20 to July 6; 9 records, June 16 to 30. Labrador Peninsula: 12 records, June 11 to July 7; 6 records, June 3 to 20. Aleutian Islands: 7 records, June 10 to 26. Newfoundland: 11 records, June 2 to 12.

REINHARDT’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


The race reTh,hardi cf the rock ptarmigan was described from southern Greenland, where it undoubtedly forms a well-marked subspecies. A. L. V. Manniche (1910) treats of the rock ptarmigan of northeast Greenland under the name Lago pus m~ttus, that of the Old-World species, from which the Greenland birds differ only slightly. I am inclined to think that a careful study may show that mutus is a circumpolar species, of which the American forms are only subspecies. The 1910 American Ornithologists’ Union Check List includes in the range of rein1~ardi the northern extremity of Ungava and western Cumberland Sound. Unfortunately summer specimens of rock ptarmigan from anywhere on the Labrador Peninsula are too scarce for us to form any satisfactory opinion as to what the birds of that region really are. Until we know more definitely what the birds of Labrador and Ungava really are, it seems more logical to refer them to rapestris and confine reinkardi to western Greenland south of Disco. The Greenland birds have been subdivided into three races, as fully explained in Dr. R. M. Anderson’s footnotes in his translation of Bernhard Hantzsch’s (1929) Labrador paper. But for life-history purposes, I prefer to treat the Greenland birds as all of one form.

Nesting: What little information we have on the nesting habits of Reinhardt’s ptarmigan indicates that it does not differ in this respect from other races of the rock ptarmigan. Capt. D. B. MacMillan told me that he once found a nest, on Baffin Island, that was placed on a nubble, not more than 10 feet long, surrounded by water in a pond; it would be interesting to know how the mother transported her young to the shore.

Eggs: The eggs are indistinguishable from those of the rock ptarmigan. The measurements of 51 eggs average 41.9 by 30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 44.5 by 29.5, 44 by 32, 39 by 30, and 40 by 29 millimeters.

Food: A. L. V. Manniche (1910) says:

Their principal food consisted of buds and short bits of stalks of So ii: arctico. According to Dr. Llndhard’s analyses stomachs of Ptarmigans shot at this season also contained leaves of Dryas octopetala and crowns of leaves of Saxifraga oppositifofla. In stomachs of shot young ones I found remnants of plants as well as of insects. The old birds in summer also partly feed on insects.

Behavior: The same observer writes:

In fine weather these hardy birds did not seem Inconvenienced by the temperature frequentiy as loxv as some 400 below zero. But it was bard for the ptarmigans to support tbeir lives during severe snow-storms and when the earth was covered by thick, evenly lying crusted snow.

At sunset they flow to the rocks and remained there over night. In the heavy snowmasses on the leeside of the rock they digged holes some 20 centImeters deep, just large enough for the body of the birds, and here they spent their nights apparently without ever altering position judging from the manner In which the excrements were deposited. When several ptarmigans had spent a night In company, their holes were always placed within a rather narrow circumference sometimes nearer and sometimes at a longer distance, but never quite close to each other. The ptarmigans would also often spend their nights in narrow ravines in the rocks filled up with snow.

Sometimes I found my old foot-prints taken possession of by the piarmigans as night-quarters. They were by night not seldom frightened out of their holes of polar foxes and erimines, which could be easily seen on new fallen snow. I found, however, In no ease, signs that ptarmigans were caught In this way.

When a female ptarmigaa was going to fly up, she would raise the feathers on the back of her head to a polated crest and lay the tips of her wings on the upper rump uttering a suffocated clucking, that could best be compared with the call of Frin glUe snontifriagilla; at the same time she would execute some courtesying movements with her bead and the forepart of her body.

Just after a heavy sno’v-storm, that covered all the earth evenly with snow, the ptarmigans would prove extremely shy. For a few moments at a time they would settle on summits of rocks or stones, that reach over the snow, and then, by a rapid soundless flight, disappear arouad corners of rocks through deep ravines or out over extensive plains. ~Vhen the ptarmigans after some hours had found places with food, they would again become tranquil.

Winter: It seems to be well established that this and other true rock ptarmigan are migratory. Mr. Manniche (1910) says:

In the absolutely dark season ptarmigans or foot-prints of them were nowhere found In spite of numerous researches on different places, and there can be no doubt, that this species for some three months leaves this part of NorthEast Greenland,

It may be supposed, that the birds only migrate to somewhat more southerly lying parts of East Greenland, as they already begia to return in the beginning of February, when the sun has aot yet appeared. (In 1907 the first ptarmigan was seen at the ship’s harbour February 4th and the next year 4 days later.)

The migration lasted through February, March, and the larger part of April, and the number of ptarmigans within a certain place might differ a good deal in this time.

Captain MacMillan (1918) recorded them as “common at Etah in spring and fall migration”; and as “not seen in July and August.” The migration is very early, as he shot some at Etah on February 13 and saw them on the inland highlands of Ellesmere Island and Grant Land in March.

Hagerup (1891), referring to the region about Ivigtut in southern Greenland, writes:

During winter the number is considerably Increased by the birds coming from the north, but the abundance is very variable. Thus the first winter I was at Ivigtut, an uncommonly cold season, comparatively few were seen, though about 400 were shot;ï but the following winter, which was much milder, the birds were much more numerous, and about twice as many were killed. When snow covers the ground they are less frequent in the valleys than on the mountain slopes and in the clefts; but on the high lands they are not so numerous. They usually resort to side hills, where there are large bowiders, and where some herbs are easily accessible. They change their feeding-ground very often, and sometimes in the course of a single night they arrive in such numbers that on the following day the birds or their tracks may he seen everywhere, while at other times one may travel for days without seeing any sign of one.

NELSON’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


Nelson’s ptarmigan is perhaps the best known of the half dozen forms of the rock ptarmigan found in the Aleutian Islands. It is a permanent resident on Unalaska Island, particularly on the eastern and more mountainous end, on the Krenitzin Islands, east of Unalaska, and on the Alaska Peninsula, at the base of which it apparently intergrades with the mainland rock ptarmigan. Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood (1904), who collected specimens on Portage Mountain, at the base of the peninsula, says: “With the material at hand I have been unable to satisfactorily distinguish the rock ptarmigan of the Alaska Peninsula from those of Unalaska Island.” About fliuliuk Village, on Unalaska Island, we found ptarmigan scarce and wild, even on the mountains back of the village, where they are persistently hunted by the natives. Dutch Harbor is on Ainaknak Island, which is separated from Unalaska by only a narrow channel. Here, between June 5 and 9, 1911, we found them quite common on a small mountain, locally known as “Ballyhoo,” where we collected most of our birds, shooting nine one day and seven another. This mountain is only about 1,800 feet high, but is very steep and is topped by a knife-edged ridge covered with crusted snow. It is a stiff climb up the south side where the steep slope is clothed in soft mosses, with a sparse growth of coarse grasses, cow-parsnip, and other small herbaceous plants and with bare soil or rocks here and there. The north side breaks off suddenly into precipitous, rocky cliffs, straight down to the bay below. One day I started out to hunt. ptarmigan on this mountain in a cold driving rain typical of Aleutian Islands weather; when halfway up the rain changed to snow, and when I reached the crest of the ridge the bay below was hidden in a blanket of fog, and across the bay a snow-capped mountain stood out in bright sunlight. Austin H. Clark (1910) found these birds at “the rugged northeastern end” of this island “on the mossy lower slopes, and one or two on the seacoast itself about the mouth of snowfilled ravines.” But all of our birds were taken well up on the sides of the mountains.

Courtship: At the time of our visit the ptarmigan were busy with their courtships. The males were very noisy and conspicuous; usually several could be seen sitting on little hummocks, as we looked up the mountainside; evidently each cock bird has his own special hummock, which he defends against intruders, for it is well decorated with droppings and molted feathers. Here he sits or struts about, clucking and displaying his charms, with the flaming red combs above his eyes fully extended, while his prospective mate, now inconspicuous in her mottled summer dress, walks about in the vicinity quite unconcerned. At frequent intervals he rises into the air 30 or 40 feet above the ground and floats or flutters downward, sometimes scaling on down-curved wings, uttering during the descent his loud clucking, or rattling, call, ‘wucic, wuck, ~inzck, many times repeated. A pair of birds could often be located by seeing this song flight of the male, his white wings being quite conspicuous at a long distance. It is a very pretty performance and makes a striking display. Lucien M. Turner (1886) refers to a performance that is evidently part of the courtship: “In the male the neck is stretched along the ground, the tail spread and thrown over the back, the wings outstretched, while he utters a rattling croak that may be heard for a long distance.”

Nesting: We found no nests of this ptarmigan, and none of the females collected were anywhere nearly ready to lay. We assumed that they would nest later in the season on the lower, more grassy slopes. Turner’s (1886) remarks probably refer in part to this ptarmigan, which he says is extremely abundant on some of the islands in the eastern part of the Aleutian Chain. He writes:

The mating season begins in the early part of May, and is continued for about three weeks, by which time a site for the nest is chosen, usually amidst the tall grasses at the mouth of a wide valley, or else on the open tund~ro among the moss and scanty grass.

The nest of this bird Is composed of a few stalks of grass and a few feathers that fall from the mother’s breast. The nest is a very careless affair, and often near the completion of incubation the eggs will lie on the bare ground surrounded by a slight circle of grass stalks that have apparently been kicked aside by tbe mother impatient of her task. The number of eggs varies from nine to seventeen, eleven being the usual number.

Dr. Richard C. McGregor (1906) found a nest on a small island in the Krenitzin Group, east of Unalaska, that unquestionably belonged to the Nelson’s ptarmigan; it was taken on Egg Island on July 6; “the nest was a mass of gras3, leaves, and a few ~ and contained six eggs.

Eggs: The eggs referred to above are described by Doctor McGregor (1906) as follows: In color the eggs are dull creamy brown overlaid with irregular spots of dark reddish brown, almost black. The larger markings tend to form a ring near the large end of each egg, but this ring is rather poorly defined. The eggs measure as follows, In millimeters and tenths: 42.3X30.l; 42.4X80.6; 40.8X30.5; 41.7X31.3; 42.4X31.8; 45.2X31.4. Incubation was begun.

There are three eggs in the National Museum collection that resemble certain types of rock ptarmigan’s eggs. They are ovate in shape with very little gloss. The ground colors are creamy white or pale buff. In one the ground color is nearly covered with small spots and fine sprinkles of very dark brown; in another it is nearly covered with large blotches and small spots of “claret brown” and “liver brown.” The measurements of nine eggs average 42.5 by 30.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 44.2 by 30; 42.5 by 31.8, and 41.6 by 29.9 millimeters.

Food: Doctor Osgood (1904) reported that “an examination of the crops of 10 birds killed at Cold Bay showed a variety of food, but buds, particularly willow buds, predominated. Tiny buds and twigs of some small species of Vaccinjuin were found in large numbers, which must have been secured by a very tedious process. Some of the craws contained nothing but buds, others had a few leaves of Drya8 and Ledum, and occasionally one contained some broken pieces of large aments of Alnus ‘viridi8.”

Behavior: Turner (1886) writes: The young are able to follow the mother as soon as they are hatched. As this bird never collects into large flocks, I always supposed the flocks seen in winter were the parents with the brood reared the previous summer. The power of flight of this bird is much stronger than its congener. It is sustained for a longer period and much more rapid. The flesh of this species Is better than that of the Willow Ptarmigan and is much sought for as food. The best time to hunt this bird is early in the morning when the wind is calm and a moist snow is falling. The birds are then sluggish and dislike to rise to the hill-tops.

There is not much more to be said about the habits of this ptarmigan, which apparently do not differ materially from those of the mainland rock ptarmigan. This form is much closer to the mainland form in appearance and habits than it is to the other Aleutian forms. It is essentially a bird of the mountains and foothills. It is tame enough where it is not molested, but it soon becomes sophisticated where it is hunted persistently. On the mountains back of Iliuliuk Village on Unalaska Island, where we collected a few speci. mens, we found it a really sporty game bird. It usually flushed at long range, with loud clucking notes, and flew very swiftly for a long distance, often across some deep ravine, where a long hard walk was necessary to flush it again. The man who makes a good bag under such circumstances earns his birds.

TURNER’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


The four forms of ptarmnigan found on four of the more central islands of the Aleutian Chain, at1o/ien~is on Atka Island, tow nsendi on Kiska Island, ckam~erlaini on Adak Island, and sanfordi on Tanaga Island, seem to me to be sufficiently different from their nearest neighbors, nelsoni on the east and everinanni on the west, to warrant recognizing them as four subspecies of a species distinct from rupestris. They are all somewhat larger than the mainland rock ptarmigan, with larger and heavier bills, and t.heir eggs are decidedly larger. They are birds of the lowlands, living on the low, rolling hills, grassy plains, and sand hills near the coast; whereas the rock ptarmigan, as well as nelsoni and evermanni, is essentially a bird of the mountains and moss-covered foothills, coining down to the lowlands only on the arctic tundra. The dark colors of the mountain forms match their habitat, as well as the light colors of the lowland birds match theirs. The Aleutian Islands appear to be the summits of a submerged mountain chain, which at one time may have formed a land bridge between Asia and North America. It seems likely that the central portion of the chain ma~ have subsided first, isolating the central islands long before the eastern and western islands were separated from the two continents. This might have given the birds on the central islands a much longer time to differentiate, while the birds on the two ends of the chain have remained more like the mainland birds! This might account for the presence of light-colored birds in the center and dark-colored birds at both ends, as they now exist.

On Atka Island we found this form of ptarmigan very abundant; there seemed to be more ptarmigan here than on any island we visited. There were comparatively few of them on the hillsides, but in the grassy hollows and among the low, rolling hills of the valleys we were constantly flushing them. They were apparently mated and breeding on June 13, the day of our arrival, but we failed to find any nests during the next two or three days. The male usually flushed first with loud clucking notes, and the female was sure to follow soon after him.

Courtship: They were very tame and always in pairs, so we had plenty of chances to observe their courtships. On his song flight the male rises 30 or 40 feet in the air and floats down again on decurrent wings, giving a few rapid wing strokes before alighting; sometimes, after checking his descent by rapid wing strokes just above the ground, he sails along and upward to repeat the same performance; during his descent, and particularly during the rapid wing strokes, he utters his loud croaking notes, kruR,, kuk, A,uk, A,uk, kuk, or krru~-ru-ru-ru, ru-ruk, a prolonged, rattling, nasal, clucking sound of great carrying power. Once I saw a male chasing a female in the nuptial pursuit flight; she led him a long chase up and down the valley and over some low hills, until they finally settled near me on the tundra, where they strutted about in plain sight. The male carried his head high, with the bright orange-vermilion comb over the eyes swollen and distended and with the tail erected and spread as he walked about in a slow and stately manner.

Nesting: All we know about the nesting habits of this ptarmigan is contained in the following brief statement by Lucien M. Turner (1886), who discovered and described the bird:

The nest Is built amongst the rank grasses at the bases of hills and the lowlands near the beach. The nest Is carelessly arranged with few drIed grass stalks and other trash that may be near. The eggs vary from eleven to seventeen, and are darker in color than those of s-upestris, and but slightly Inferior In size to those of L. lagopus. A number of eggs of this species were procured, but broken In transportation; hence, can give no measurements of them.

Eggs: There are 24 eggs of this ptarmigan in the United States National Museum, which do not differ in appearance from those of the other Aleutian races. The measurements average 44.8 by 32.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48.2 by 32.1, 45 by 34.5, 42.4 by 32.3, and 43.6 by 31.3 millimeters.

Plumages: Not much is known about the plumage changes of Turner’s ptarmigan. Our birds were all in full summer plumage in mid-June. A series of 15 birds collected on April 4 by Hamilton M. Laing (1925) were just beginning to molt into the summer plumage; a few were still in full, white, winter plumage.

Food: Of the birds collected by Laing (1925), “the cocks had little in their crops; the hens in most cases were stuffed with the foliage of the crowberry.”

Behavior: Laing (1925) first met this ptarmigan on Atka Island on April 4, 1924, of which he writes: On a cold, windy morning, with snow squalls bet~veen periods of sunshine, a Duck Hawk posting along the shore was seen to rout some of these white chickens of the north almost from the water’s edge and send them whirling over the white hilltop. On going ashore it was found that about fifty ptarmlgan were in the vicinity. They refused to fly very far and during the hunt seventeen specimens were secured. Rank grass in tussocks and crowberry patches grew on the hills and as there had been a good fall of snow, walking was difficult. Sometimes the birds were wild, again rather stupid. They were first found cuddled in the sun against the sheltered wall of a small canyon enclosing a brawling stream. Afterwards they flew from one hilltop to another. They were very speedy on the wing, usually flew downwind, and were extremely difficult to kill.

We noticed that the flight of the male is particularly strong and vigorous; he seems to delight in sailing against a strong wind, when he can soar for a long distance, rising and falling again and again, or even remaining perfectly stationary in the air like a poised falcon. When walking the head is carried high, and the motions are very deliberate and stately, almost stealthy in appearance, with frequent nervous twitches of the tail.

Voice: The male utters his loud clucking notes, similar to those mentioned under courtship, while walking on the ground, when starting to fly, or when alighting. The female has a much softer note, like cook, which is very seldom heard, as she is usually a silent bird. Laing’s (1925) impressions were as follows:

The strangest thing about them was their purring snort like that of a startled horse. This seemed an alarm call. A sentinel stood on a bill and gave it again and again. It could be heard 300 or 400 yards, but was very elusive and difficult to locate. One bird gave it In flight, with opened beak. A cock that was winged purred again and again when chased and stopped purring only when caught.

TOWNSEND’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


In his original description of this subspecies, Dr. D. G. Elliot (1896) gave as its range both Kiska and Adak Islands, although he observed that “there is a slight difference in the appearance of the birds ftom the two localities, and this can be attributed possibly somewhat to the difference of date in their capture, the Adak birds having been obtained one month later, but more to their geographical distribution, as Adak is several hundred miles east of Kyska, and the birds’ environment has produced a different result upon them but one, not yet sufficiently pronounced to establish even a subspecific form.”

It is now well known that towmsendi is confined to Kiska Island and is a well-marked race, being darker and more heavily barred than any of the other races found on the central islands. The Adak bird has since been separated by Austin H. Clark (1907), under the name cAamberlaini.

We were on Kiska Island from June 17 to 21 and on Adak Island on June 26 and 27. We collected good series on both islands, in which the characters of both races are well marked, showing that the two forms are quite distinct. It is, therefore, clearly a geographical difference and not a seasonal change, as Doctor Elliot (1896) evidently thought it might be.

At Kiska Island, on June 17, the ptarmigan of this form were still in the uplands, were much wilder than the Atka birds, and not nearly so abundant; but during the few days that we were there we succeeded in collecting a good series. No nests were found; probably we were too early for complete sets, and nests would be found later on in the long grass of the lowlands. So far as we could see, the habits and behavior of the Kiska birds are similar to those of the other races on the neighboring islands, as their environment is practically the same. These islands are all so widely separated that it seems very unlikely that the ptarmigan ever fly from one to the other. Hence each island has produced its peculiar form, which is completely isolated and permanently resident. All these ptarmigan proved to be very good toeat,andwefoundtheirplumpbodiesverywelcomeadditions~ the ship’s stores of canned food.

CHAMBERLAIN’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


The Adak ptarniigan was separated from the Kiska and Atka birds and given the name ckamberlaini by Austin H. Clark (1907). It differs from the Kiska. bird “in its finer vermiculations above, which give the bird a grayer appearance: the whole plumage presenting a much more delicate pattern.” He calls it intermediate between the Kiska and the Atka birds, “but in general coloration it is much grayer than either, being the grayest of all the Aleutian ptarmigan.”

We spent June 26 and 27, 1911, on Adak Island, where we found this ptarmigan common but not abundant; we obtained all that we needed for specimens. We found them mostly in a broad valley of small, low, rolling hills, with a number of small ponds scattered through it; on either side of the valley were mountainous peaks, with rocky summits and with plenty of snow on them. The valley was mostly dry tundra carpeted with a dwarf species of reindeer moss, which the gray plumage of the ptarmigan matched very well. The birds were also found on the low hills and in the grassy hollows and lowlands but not on the mountains. They were much wilder than we had found them on other islands, which seemed strange, as this island is uninhabited.

Nesting: On June 26, 1911, I found a nest of seven fresh eggs in a little valley on a hillside; it was a deep hollow in the ground between a tuft of grass and a little cow-parsnip; it was carelessly lined with dry grass and a few feathers. Dr. Alexander Wetmore also collected a similar set of seven fresh eggs on the same day. Evidently all the Aleutian ptarmigan are late breeders.

Eggs: The eggs we collected are ovate in shape, and the shell is smooth with little or no gloss. The ground colors vary from “pinkish cinnamon” to pale “pinkish buff”; some eggs are washed with “cinnamon” at one end or the other, giving the egg a richly colored effect. In one set the eggs are thickly covered with very small spots and fine dots of dark browns, which are sometimes concentrated near the small end; two of the eggs have a few large, irregular blotches near the small end. The other set is marked like the common types of ptarmigan’s eggs. The markings vary in color from “chestnut-brown” to “bone brown.” The measurements of these 14 eggs average 46.1 by 32.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 47.5 by 33.2, 45.6 by 33.6, 45 by 32.8, and 46.5 by 32.4 millimeters.

Plumages: Five males collected by Hamilton M. Laing (1925) on Adak Island, April 13, 1924, had already begun to molt into the summer plumage.

Food: All the Aleutian ptarmigan that we collected had been feeding entirely on green food, principally the young, green leaves and buds of the dwarf willows, the tops of ground evergreens and mosses, and the flower buds and blossoms of herbaceous plants.

Behavior: We noted nothing peculiar in the habits of this ptarmigan, which were similar to those of its neighbors. Laing (1925) says:

Ptarmlgan were even more numerous at Kuluk bay, Adak island, than on Atka Island. On April 13 ptarmigan were purring everywhere and were all noted In the grass at low levels. There was no time to ascertain whether they were also numerous on the dark, crowberry-covered hills above, but they were scattered over the flats near the lagoon and the nearby lower grass-covered hills. In the distance was seen what, apparently, was a lively fight between two birds. There was only one round. Several times birds when routed whirled aloft 50 feet or so and then settled again slowly, purring loudly and perhaps threateningly, though what this manoeuvre was for was not clear. Several were shot with the .22 rifle, but they were very tenacious of life and a shot through the body with a hollow-point seldom actually kiiled them. Some so hit flew a hundred yards before falling. Some of the birds were quite wild, others comparatively tame. They were wildest during the cold, blustery snow squalls.

DIXON’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


Dixon’s ptarmigan is one of the many dark-colored races so characteristic of the humid coast belt of the northwest. It was discovered by Joseph Dixon and was named for him by Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1909), who ascribed to it the following characters: “Resembling Lagopu.s rupestr2~8 nelson.i in corresponding plumage, but much darker; in extreme blackness of coloration nearly like Lagopu8 evermanni, but feathers of chest and back more or less finely vermiculated with hazel.”

Dixon’s account (Grinnell et al., 1909) of securing the first specimens is interesting and gives an idea of the inaccessible haunts of this bird:

I was crawling down a ledge on the north side of the rocky summit of a mountain at 2700 feet altitude. About twenty-five feet below me a sharp rock jutted out, forming the crest of a hundred-foot cliff. I had glanced along the ledge below but saw nothing, when suddenly a gray-backed ptarxnlgan rose from a bunch of heather on a narrow ledge and trotted out on a jutting rock, bobbing Its head and watching me Intently the while. I fired a light charge at the bird which dropped over the cliff. At the report two other ptarmigan jumped up and started swiftly away. I dropped one with the remaining barrel. Then I began the descent to retrieve the birds. By going down to one side of the cliff I had almost reached its base when I came to a sheer drop; so I had to dig my fingers into the crevices and work my way back up again. By going a long way around I finally reached a twenty-foot snow drift at the foot of the cliff and there I found my two birds dead. Both had their crops stuffed with heather buds.

George Willett (1914) says of its haunts:

During the summer months these birds keep well up toward the summits of the mountain ranges, above timber line, where they feed on heather buds and berries. Owing to the difficulties in ascending these mountains, specimens are hard to secure at this season. They apparently move in bodies from one section of the mountains to another, and locating them is largely a matter of luck. I have been in sections of the mountains where sign less than a week old was abundant, but the most diligent search failed to locate a single b~rd. Whether these changes of location are due to the weather or food supply I am unable to state.

Nothing seems to have been published about the nesting habits of this ptarmigan. There is a set of six eggs in P. B. Phillipp’s collection, of which the average measurements are 42.2 by 29.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 43.9 by 29.9, 42.3 by 30.4, and 40.8 by 29.4 millimeters.

Doctor Grinnell (1909) quotes from Mr. Dixon’s notes, as follows:

Their flight was very swift, more like that of a falcon than a quail. The males would fly out over the mountain side, hover for a moment and then swoop down, and alight on a rock, uttering their loud, rasping call, which sounds similar to the noise produced by running a lead pencil over a stiff rubber comb.

Alfred M. Bailey (1927) gives us two good pictures of Dixon’s ptarmigan in its autumn habitat:

During October there appeared a wealth of small birds, and many Ptarmigan were seen and collected. The vegetation was in the height of its “autumn glory,” and a peculiar “lily pad,” which flourishes abundantly, colored the hills an intense yellow above timber line, while still higher, among the piled boulders, there was a small ever-green growth upon which ihe Ptarmigan were feeding. A few were found in such a site, and some of them were extremely wild. The Ptarniigan in Granite Creek were taken among the boulders and slide rock on the summit of the highest mountains surrounding the valley, at an altitude of over 4,000 feet. There was absolutely no vegetation. That they are well named “Rock Ptarmigan” there can be no doubt after noting their habit of sunning themselves upon the tops of large boulders; one rested upon a little overhanging ledge which left a sheer drop to the valley floor far below. Several small flocks were seen flying about like so many Doves. They raised from the mountain on which we were hunting and sailed across the valley to the foot of a hanging glacier. One hand flew over me and I tried to drop a bird on our narrow ridge, but the tumbling Ptarmigan sailed on into space and dropped at least 1500 feet to the valley floor.

Again, on November 11, he wrote in his notes:

When Just above timber line I saw a Three-toed Woodpecker on a dwarfed hemlock, and, on the snow fields above, about thirty Ptarmigan. The tops were icy, making creepers a necessity. The birds were in full winter plumage, wonderfully handsome fellows, the white of the males being relieved by the black eye patch. Their call notes could be heard from all sides of the snow covered mountains, and here and there cream-colored birds, gleaming In the sun-light, could be seen. Overhead an eagle circled, and soon the air was filled with flying Ptarmigan, although I did not see the Eagle make a swoop toward them. Of all the birds seen, only five were in one band, while the others were scattered in singles or pairs, and I wondered if they spread to feed among the little patches of grass sticking through the snow, or for the protection which isolation sometimes brings. The call note of the males was constantly heard. This note has an individuality about It which can be mistaken for no other bird. The Ptarmlgan were tame, and often allowed us within good photographing distance, especially if we tried to imitate their note. They rise from the ground with great speed, and usually their flight is direct, although when flying out over a valley, they often slant down as though to attain greater speed. A few specimens were taken, and we found it difficult to secure our birds, for immedi ately they were hit, they started sliding down the slippery mountain side, and did not stop until they reached the brush line far below. This particular habitat was picturesque, to say the least, and on this day was remarkably beau. tiful; for the cloudless sky was a deep blue, the horizon was the serrated white line of the mountain tops, and the winding glacier: from Its colorless snow fields at the summit to the seamed and rugged ice field below: with its characteristic shadows and high-lights of blue and white, made a wonderful panorama.

Bailey (1927) says of its winter habits:

After the winter snows have covered the mountains to a considerable depth, these birds drop to the valley floors where they feed among the alders and willows. They were often encountered during the following winter days, sometimes In large flocks, and many specimens were secured. The species may be considered a rather common bird in its proper habitat, near Juneau; It Is simply a matter of looking In the proper place: and often Involves some rather strenuous work.

SANFORD’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


Although I described and named this race myself (1912), in honor of my friend Dr. Leonard C. Sanford, who cooperated with me in organizing our expedition to the Aleutian Islands, I must confess that it is only slightly differentiated from the Adak ptarmigan. We all noticed a difference when our birds were collected, and when we laid our series of about 40 specimens of 8anford~ beside nearly as many of chamberlaini, it was easy to see that the Tanaga birds were appreciably paler in color than the Adak birds. The Tanaga birds are therefore the lightest in color of any of the Aleutian ptarmigan and have the finest vermiculations.

We landed on Tanaga Island on June 25, 1911, and spent only half a day on shore; so far as I know, no one had ever collected birds on this interesting island before; we found it very rich in bird life, and it is a great pity that we were not able to spend more time there. Back of the sandy beach on which we landed was a series of sand hills or dunes, covered with long grass, and beyond these was a flat, alluvial plain or tundra, with one large and several small streams flowing through it from ~he mountains farther inland, and dotted with a number of small ponds and wet meadows. Northern phalaropes were breeding commonly among the ponds and meadows, and Aleutian sandpipers were abundant, indulging in their flight songs and. nesting on the little knolls and hummocks on the tundra, where a brood of downy young was found. At the base of a steep hillside a colony of fork-tailed petrels was beginning to breed. The ptarmigan were tamer and more abundant here than on any of the other islands that we visited; we shot more than 40 in one afternoon. They were commonest on the rolling, grassy hillocks and grassy hills on the tundra. They flushed at short range, did not fly far, and were easily shot.

Nesting: Five nests were found, but only three sets of eggs were collected; the other two were left to he photographed the next day, but we were forced to go away and leave them, as well as some nests of Aleutian sandpiper and an eagle’s nest found by some of the crew. One nest containing nine fresh eggs was on the side of the steep overhanging bank of a stream; it was in a hollow between two large tufts of grass and well hidden under one of them; the hollow measured 7 by 8 inches and was lined with coarse grass and feathers. Another nest, containing eight fresh eggs, was a hollow in the ground, measuring 7 by 6 inches and 3 inches deep, between two little mossy hummocks and under a scraggly cow-parsnip; it was on a little grassy hillock near the beach and was lined with coarse grass and feathers. Other nests were well hidden in the long grass and were found by flushing the birds.

Eggs: Judged from the three sets of eggs that we collected, consisting of eight or nine eggs each, the eggs of this ptarmigan are very handsome, in fact the prettiest ptarmigan’s eggs I have ever seen. They are ovate in shape with a smooth and slightly glossy surface. The ground colors vary from “ochraceous-tawny” or “cinnamon” to “cream-huff” or “cartridge buff “; some of the eggs are washed at the large end or at the small end with “tawny,” giving them a. very rich appearance. They are boldly and heavily marked with large irregular blothes and small spots of the colors usually seen on other ptarmigan’s eggs, dark browns, ~ “bone brown,~’ or nearly black. The measurements of 25 eggs average 46.5 by 33.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48.2 by 34, 46.6 by 34.6, 44.2 by 34.6, and 45.5 by 32.8 millimeters.

Plumages: We know nothing about the plumage changes of Sanford’s ptarmigan, except that a series of two adult males and six adult females, collected by Donald H. Stevenson on September 18, 1921, now in the Biological Survey collection, show a postbreeding plumage quite different from the June breeding plumage. In the male this is darker, browner, or redder than the breeding plumage; the prevailing color of the breast, head, neck, and flanks is from “tawny ” to ” ochraceous-tawny,” instead of “cinnamon-buff” mixed with pale grayish buffs, as in the June birds; on the upper parts the tawny shades are much more heavily peppered, variegated, or barred with black, entirely unlike June birds. The differences are similar in the female; the “cinnamon-buff” feathers, barred with black, of the June plumage are being replaced by white feathers on the belly, and by “tawny” or “ochraceous-tawny” feathers on the breast and flanks, more finely barred or peppered with black or dusky; the upper parts are also more tawny with finer barring or peppering and with more black than in June birds. Breeding females have no peppered feathers and no white on the belly. A juvenal bird, collected at the same time and place, is like the adult female, but the colors arc duller.

KELLOGG’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


The name lcelloggae, “Montague rock ptarmigan,” was first applied by Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1910) to a bird that he described as a new subspecies from Montague Island, Prince William Sound, Alaska. But a later and more extensive study by Harry S. Swarth (1926) has shown that the specimens on which Doctor Grinnell’s name is based are merely variants toward dixoni of a race, distinct from rupestrie, that inhabits the whole of northern and western Alaska. He says of the characters and distribution of the race he now calls kelloggae:

The notable feature of this bird Is its bright ruddy tone of coloration, a character that is evident in both sexes and in all stages of the sunimer plumages. As compared with rupcstris, the general tone of color throughout is brighter and more reddish, and there is notable restriction of the dark areas on individual feathers.

The extreme manifestation of this race is reached on the northwestern and northern coast of Alaska, it occupies practically the whole of the Alaskan mainland, and it extends eastward of Alaska along the Arctic coast for some distance. In the latter region the duller color of specimens from Baillie Island, Coronation Gulf, and Bathurst Inlet, is to be interpreted, to my mind. as indicative of intergradation with rupcstris.

Southeastward there is lntergradation again with rupestris as occurring in British Columbia, about at the Alaska-Yukon boundary line. A series of seventeen skins from the vicinity of Eagle (U. S. Biol. Sun’. coil.). in the upper Yukon region, demonstrates such intergradation satisfactorily. Certain selected skins from this series and from the British Columbia aggregation are hardly to be distinguished, and none of the Eagle specimens shows the extreme of ruddiness that is seen in Alaskan birds from more northern points. The Eagle series as a whole, however, certainly belongs with the northern Alaska subspecies rather than with rupcstris. On the southern coast there is apparent lntergradation with dixoni, as shown by skins from Kodiak Island, Seward, and Prince William Sound.

According to the latest revision of this species by P. A. Taverner (1929), as recognized in the new American Ornithologists’ Union Check List, the range of this form is extended eastward along the arctic coast and islands to western Greenland, north of Disco.

As the habits of this ptarmigan do not differ materially from those of other rock ptarmigan, I shall not attempt to duplicate what I have already written on the species.

According to Roderick MacFarlane (1908) the summer home of the rock ptarmigan in northern Canada consists of vast plains or steppes of a flat or undulating character, diversified by some small lakes and gently sloping eminences, not dissimilar in appearance to portions of the North-West prairies.

The greater part of the Barren Grounds is every season covered with short grasses, mosses, and small flowering plants, while patches of sedgy or peaty soil occur at longer or shorter distances. On these, as well as along the smaller rivulets, river and lake banks, Labrador tea, crow-berries, and a few other kinds of berries, dwarf birch, willows, etc., grow.

Referring to his trip to Ilooper Bay, Alaska, Herbert W. Brandt Writes to me:

Our first acqpalntance with the rock piarmigan was made In the upper solitudes of the Beaver Mountains high ahove timber line on April 6. On these bald snow-beaten hills we found a number of straggling flocks; one that numbered about 20 birds contained only maies, while the others were evidently mated couples, banded together. On the wind-swept slopes were numerous mossy hummocks, and in the leeward side of this scant protection, the bird scoops out a snug little snolvy Igloo. This is its only retreat and roosting place during the long cold winter, for Mr. Twitchell advises me that this hardy species seldom descends to the larger willows and spruces, which line the streams below. The rock ptarmlgan is a rather common summer resident in the Askinuk Mountains, where It seems to prefer the sterile open ridges In the vicinity of 1,000 feet In altitude.

Nesting: Brandt says on this subject:

The contents of the nest of this species range from 6 to 11 eggs, but the usual number found Is 8. The nesting site Is so chosen that protection is afforded by a hummock, a small tree, or even a growth of frost-dried grass, but occasionally no concealment whatever is present. The lining of the nest consists solely of surrounding materials, such as grasses, lichens, and floss, together with a few feathers.

Eggs: The rock ptarmigan, according to MacFarlane (1908), lays fewer eggs than the willow ptarmigan, the usual number being six or seven and rarely more than nine. He describes the eggs, based on the very large series collected by him, as follows:

The eggs are ovate or short ovate in form, resembling the eggs of Lagopas lagopus considerably, both in colour and markings, but they average smaller. The majority are readily distinguished from those of the latter, the markings, as a rule, being smaller and better defined, and seldom running into indistinct and Irregular blotches, as is frequently the case in the eggs of that species. The ground colour ranges from a pale cream to a decided yellowish-buff, and in many specimens this is entirely hidden by a vinaceous rufous suffusion. The spots and blotches range from a dark clove-brown to a dark claret-red, with paler coloured edgings; they are of various sizes, from the size of a buckshot to that of No. 10 shot, and are irregularly distributed over the egg.

Brandt gives a very good description of the eggs as follows:

The egg of the rock ptarmigan is ovate to elongate ovate in shape and has slight to considerable lustor, which npparently increases as the egg incubates. The surface is smooth and greasy, and the sturdy shell strongly resists the drill. The vivid markings on this beautiful egg are so numerous that they often nil but envelope the pale ground color nnd produce rich-mottled Cecoration that gives the egg a noteworthy appenrance. These spots are distributed evenly over the surface, except that often a confluent cap intensifies the color at the larger end. The eggs laid by one bird are similar in shape, plan of markings, and coloration, but seldom are there two sets from different parents exactly alike. The inconspicuous ground color follows the paler buffs and creams, often with a reddish suggestion; shell pink, pinkish huff, or cream color 15 often observed, while many eggs are still lighter than these pale colors. The markings range in size from the smallest spots to those approachbig thumb-nail in size and are more or less confluent. As a rule, the larger the spots are in size, the more the ground is shown. These markings when dry are blackish brown, but where the pigment has been sufficiently thinned, the color ranges from walnut brown nnd maroon to blackish brown. Underlying spots apparently are not presenL

Behavior: Doctor Grinnell (1900) says of his experience with this ptarmigan in the Kotzebue Sound region:

I first met with this species on September 17, 1898, about the summit of the Jade Mountains on the north side of the Kowak Valley. On that day I saw three flocks of 6, 7, and 20 birds, respectively. In each case they were flushed from ridges at sonic distnnce, and were probably feeding on heath and blue-berries, which fairly covered the ground on favorable slopes. At a distance the birds appeared to be entirely white, at this date, though no specimens were obtained. I rather think the summer plumage of the Rock Ptarmigan is of much shorter duration than ihat of the Willow Ptarmigan in the lowlands. The Rock Ptnrmigan, according to my experience, are confined exclusively to the higher hill-tops and mountains in summer, and at such elevations the snow remains later in the spring and comes much earlier in the fall than in the valley, leaving a very brief summer. No Rock Ptarmlgan were detected in the Kowak Valley until February 11th. On account of the light snow-fall In the early part of the winter, they probably found sufficient forage on the mountain sides up to this date. However, during March and April flocks of from a dozen to a hundred were often met with in the lowlands. These flocks could be traced up by following their tracks, especinily if the snow was freshly fallen or laid by the wind. Then tracks of a large flock of Rock Ftarmigan would form a broad swath and extend across the tundra for miles, the individual lines of tracks zigzagging back and forth so as to take in every ‘villow twig or bunch of grass sticking up through the snow, hut all tending in the same general direction. The hir4s, when on these feeding marches, upparently sehloin take flight unless disturbed, and I have followed these roads from one set of “forms” in the snow, where the hirds had passed the preceding night to the second set of “forms’s of the succeeding night, and then finally found them, doubtless on their second day’s walk without taking flight; except occasional individuals left behind. The tracks of the Rock Ptarmigan are easily distinguishable from those of the Willo~v Ptarmignu by their much smaller size and tile shorter strides; and they seem not to be in the habit of dragging their middle toes over the ground at each step. as evidenced by the tracks In the case of the Willow Ptarmigan.

W. Sprague Brooks (1915) says:

The males are quite pugnacious, when in flocks, often pursuing each other and going through antics suggesting the young males of domestic fowls.

Rock Ptarmlgan exhibit considerable curiosity at tImes, a trait I have not noticed in the Willow Ptarmlgan. When one of its kind is dead or wounded the rest frequently show great concern and interest In the unfortunate one. Many times while walking over the tundra I would be startled by the rattling call of a male Rock Ptarmlgan, and turning about see him alight within a few yards of me with tail spread and eye wattles erect. After strutting about and “showing off” a moment he would busy himself searching for food as though no man were in the country. In the winter plumage the males are very beautiful.

Voice: Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) came across a pair of these birds near St. Michael, of which he writes:

They allowed me to approach wIthin 20 feet, and paid no attention beyond looking curiously at me as I walked slowly along. The suspicion of the male being slightly excited, he uttered a low, rolling or whirring sound, like that produced by rolling the end of the tongue. The female answered with a low, clear gop-pop, with a peculiar Intonation, strikingly like that of the female henturkey, except it was much lower. When we were about 15 feet from the birds, they stood looking at us for a moment with a pretty air of innocent curiosity, and then, without showing the slightest signs of alarm, arose and flew off to the hill-side, a hundred yards or more away.

Migrations: Nelson says of their migratory movements:

During the entire year these birds are resident north at least to Bering Straits, as I obtained specimens from that vicinity on bne of my winter expeditions. In summer it extends still beyond this, to all portions of the country crossed by mountain chains and hills. In autumn, toward the last of October and first of November, this bird unites with the common Ptarmlgan in great flocks, on the northern shore of Norton Sound, and migrates thence across the sound to Stuart’s Island, thence reaching the mainland. The birds are frequently seen by the natives while they are passing Egg Island, on their way to the island Just mentioned. They are said to commence their flight lust before dark in the evening, and at this season, as mentioned under the preceding species, many are snared at the head of Norton flay. In April the birds return to the north, always traveling in the evening or night, as they do during their autumnal migrations.

EVERMANN’S PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = Rock Ptarmigan]


The well-marked subspecies evermanrti, the darkest colored of all the ptarmigans, the males being almost black, is confined to Attu Island, the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands, 1,400 miles west of Unalaska. Dr. D. G. Elliot (1896) in his original description of it observes:

The males of L. evermanni bear a certain resemblance to specimens of L. mutus, of the Eastern Hemisphere, where these have much black in Their plumage; but between Attu and the continent of Asia is found L. rtdgwayt, a very distinct form from Bering Island, about 300 miles west of Attu. This would seem to bar any possible relationship between L. evernianni and any continental species, though it is a surprising fact, and one that can only be theorized upon and not thoroughly explained, that species which are closely allied can be separated by many miles of sea and land, and yet retain their specific characteristics, though distinctly different species may be found occupytrig interlying territory. This is one of the curiosities of geographical distribution, the solution of which is probably beyond the power of man to fathom.

Everyone who has visited Attu Island has remarked on the scarcity of this ptarmigan. Perhaps it may live so far up on the mountains that its favorite haunts have not been visited; this would fit my theory that the dark-colored birds are mountain birds and that the light-colored birds are lowland birds. But perhaps the scarcity may be due to persistent hunting by the inhabitants of Chichagof Village or to the presence of blue foxes, which are very common here. Doctor Elliot had only seven specimens on which to base his description. Austin H. Clark (1910) writes:

I did not find this bird at all common on Attu, doubtless because I did not succeed in locating Its favorite haunts. During an entire day’s trip over the mountains on the right of the harbor, behind the town, and about the large lake at the summer encampment, only three were seen, one in the mountains above the lake and two In the lowlands between the town and the lake. All three were shot. On arriving at the ship one of the men told me he had never seen piarmigan so common as about the summit of the mountains at the left of the harbor entrance. As he had had considerable experience with ptarmigan in seldom visited portions of Alaska, and was a reliable man, I arranged to visit the locality the next day with him as a guide in order to obtain a series of this little known species. We started early and reached the place a little before noon, but, although the droppings of the birds were extremely abundant everywhore, we saw none of the birds themselves. Just as we were preparing to leave, after searching the whole district thoroughly, a fine cock came flying over from one of the neighboring peaks and was promptly secured. On our way back to the shore we saw one other which was chased for over a mile but without success.

Hamilton M. Laing (1925) says:

During our three days’ stay at Attn Island only three ptarmigan were found. A single bird on April 20 bounded up from the shore and flew wildly away. Next day, which was warm and sunny, two single birds were seen sitting on the brow of the bluff above the shore and both were secured. Even in life the difference between these birds and the previous forms was evident, the new blackish feathering giving them a decided speckled appearance. A climb to one of the hilltops disclosed no evidence of the birds at higher elevations.

We spent only a day and a half at Attu Island and collected eight ptarmigan, one pair that I shot in the valley and six that Rollo II. Beck shot on the mountains; the bare and moss-covered rocky sides of the mountains seem to be their favorite haunts; the eight birds secured were all that we saw.

Nothing seems to be known about the nesting habits or eggs of Evermann’s ptarmigan. All we know about molts and plumages is that the male described by Doctor Elliot (1896) was just completing the molt into the summer plumage on June 4, and that the males collected by Laing (1925) were just beginning this molt on April 21. Our birds, seven males and one female, were in full summer plumage on June 22 and 23, and the female had a bare patch on the belly, showing that she was incubating. We learned nothing further about their habits.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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