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White-tailed Ptarmigan

A small game bird species with a cryptic white and brownish plumage that provides excellent camouflage in alpine and subalpine habitats in western North America. It is known for its distinctive seasonal plumage changes, with a white winter plumage and a brownish summer plumage, and for its ability to survive in harsh, high-altitude environments.

With dramatically different winter and summer plumages, the White-tailed Ptarmigan has excellent camouflage year-round. So well adapted to snow that it even roosts in snow sometimes, the White-tailed Ptarmigan typically occurs only at high elevations, though its range extends as far south as New Mexico.

Both male and female White-tailed Ptarmigan have breeding territories, and the territories of a mated pair overlap. Small flocks may form in the fall and winter. The record known lifespan for wild White-tailed Ptarmigan is fifteen years, though most birds do not live nearly so long.

Length: 12 inches
Wing span: 22 inches

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Description of the White-tailed Ptarmigan


White-tailed ptarmigan


Photograph © Greg Lavaty

The White-tailed Ptarmigan is a small grouse with plumage that changes considerably throughout the seasons, maintaining cryptic camouflage from predators.

Summer males have brownish upperparts mottled with black, a similar pattern on the breast, and a white belly. Males have red eye combs.



Summer females are mostly brownish with black mottling.  This pattern helps them blend in with alpine rocks.

Seasonal change in appearance

White-tailed Ptarmigan
Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Winter adults become pure white to blend in with snow.


Juveniles resemble adult females.


White-tailed Ptarmigan inhabit alpine tundra above timberline.


White-tailed Ptarmigan eat buds, twigs, seeds, and leaves.


White-tailed Ptarmigan forage on the ground.


White-tailed Ptarmigan are resident in alpine areas of the western U.S. and western Canada north to Alaska. The population fluctuates and is not well measured.

Fun Facts

White-tailed Ptarmigan eat grit to help break down the tough plant materials in their diet.

The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the smallest grouse in North America.

White-tailed Ptarmigan roost under the snow in the winter.


The song consists of a series of rapid clucks.

Similar Species

  • White in the tail distinguishes White-tailed Ptarmigan from Rock and Willow Ptarmigan.


The White-tailed Ptarmigan’s nest consists of a shallow scrape lined with plant material.

Number: Usually lay 2-8 eggs.
Color: Rich buffy with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 22-26 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.

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

[Current A.O.U. = White-tailed Ptarmigan]

The name “northern” white-tailed ptarmigan, adopted in the new American Ornithologists’ Union Check List, seems hardly suitable for this, the type race of the species, for the Kenai race, penineularie, ranges entirely north of it. Typical leucurus is the bird of the western Canadian mountains in British Columbia and Alberta. This form is darker, with more black in the plumage and has shorter wings and tail than the southern bird, altipetens. The southern bird being the best known race, the reader is referred to altipetens for the principal life history of the species.

Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1908), in his attractive account of this bird in the Canadian Rockies, says:

They are said not to descend below timberline during the summer, but we noted a striking exception to this rule at Lake Louise, where numbers of tbem came regularly to feed about the forest-surrounded stable. They were evidently attracted by the fallen grain and may have learned of this supply of food during the winter when the heavy snowfall drives them to lower levels.

Referring to their behavior, he writes:

The first evidence they gave of being aware of my presence, was to remain perfectly motionless, then, as I made no further advance, they attempted to combine action with rigidity of pose and were almost successful in achieving this Impossible feat. With painful slowness, one foot was placed in advance of the other, at the rate of about three steps to the minute. If I drew so near that the birds seemed convinced that they were seen, the male assumed a more alert, bantamlike attitude, ducking his upraised head and flirting his tail as though Inviting me to conflict. The pose of the female was more henlike, and less aggressive. She showed virtually no concern when I was within three feet of her, feeding about the rocks, and even stopping to scratch her head. After an hour or two, the male became more accustomed to me, and seemed as much at ease as his mate, uttering a low, crooning note suggesting that of a comfortable chicken on a sunny day.


Range: Alpine sections of southern Alaska, western Canada, and the United States.

The range of the white-tailed ptarmigan extends north to Alaska (Lake Clark, Savage River, and Robertson River); Yukon (probably La Pierre House) ; and southwestern Mackenzie (Nahanni Mountains). East to southwestern Mackenzie (Nahanni Mountains); western Alberta (Henry House, Laggan, and Sulphur Mountain); western Montana (St. Marys Lake, Piegan Pass, and Beartooth Mountain); Wyoming (Medicine Bow Mountains); Colorado (Mount Zirkel, Arapahoe Mountain, Longs Peak, Bald Mountain, James Peak, Breckenridge, St. Elmo, Cochetope Pass, and Summit Peak); and New Mexico (Costilla Peak, Taos Mountains, and Mora Pass). South to northern New Mexico (Mora Pass); southwestern Colorado (Dolores Mountain); and northwestern Oregon (Mount Jefferson). West to northwestern Oregon (Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood); Washington (Mount St. Helena, Mount Rainier, Pyramid Peak, Cloudy Pass, Mount Sahale, and Mount Baker); British Columbia (Mount Arrowsmith, Della Lake, Ninemile Mountain, Groundhog Mountain, head of the Iskut River, and Dochda-on Creek) ; and Alaska (Admiralty Island, Hooniah, Glacier Bay, Valdez, Kenai Mountains, and Lake Clark).

The white-tailed ptarmigan is confined entirely to mountainous regions, and it does not perform a migration comparable to that of the willow and rock ptarmigans. A slight vertical movement usually takes place in winter when the birds descend from the peaks and ridges to sheltered valleys in search of food.

The range as described is for the entire species, which has been divided into four subspecies. The “northern” white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus 1. leueurus) is found from northern British Columbia and central Alberta south to Vancouver Island; the Kenai whitetailed ptarmigan (Lago pus 1. peninsidaris) occurs from central Alaska, northern Yukon, and Mackenzie south to the Cook Inlet region, Kenai Peninsula, and central Yukon; the Washington whitetailed ptarmigan (Lago pus 1. rainierensis) is found in the Cascade Mountains of Washington; and the southern white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus 1. altipetens) occupies the Rocky Mountain region of the United States, from Montana to northern New Mexico.

Egg dates: Colorado: 14 records, June 19 to July 15; 7 records, June 26 to July 6.

KENAI WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = White-tailed Ptarmigan]


The type of the local race of the white-tailed ptarmigan named peninsularis, one of a series of 26 specimens, was taken by J. D. Figgins in the Kenal Mountains, on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, on August 11, 1901. It is in the gray fall, or transition, plumage. Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1902) in his original description gives it the following subspecific characters: “In nuptial plumage differs from corresponding phase of plumage of Lagopus leucurus in having the black areas of great extent, the buff areas much paler. In fall, transition or ‘preliminary’ plumage differs from similarly plumaged specimens of Lago pus leucurus in being decidedly grayer.”

Chapman quotes from Mr. Figgins’s notes, as follows:

Reared far above all timber, these interesting birds must depend upon their color for protection at all times. Found oniy on the bleak barren grounds, not even a blade of grass rises to offer them a retreat. Their color is an exact imitation of their rocky surroundings, and it the bird remains at rest It is Impossible to detect It though only a fe~v feet (listant. When approached they crouch as closely to the ground as possible, usually near some small boulder, and remain thus while you are in motion, but if a stop is made they try to steal away and in that way reveal themselves. As soon us a movement is made they resume their former position. They are hard to flush, depending rather upon their color for safety than their wings. A low cackling when their young are disturbed are the only notes I have heard. The food of this plarmigan is berries and the leaves of small plants. The principal berry resembles our blueherry in appearance and remains fresh the year round, falling from the plant only when a new crop is grown.

SOUTHERN WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = White-tailed Ptarmigan]


Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood (1901) discovered that the white-tailed ptarmigan of the Colorado mountains is subspeciflcally distinct from the bird of the mountains north of the United States and gave it the name altipet ens. He gives as its characters: “Adult in fall plumage similar to Lago pus Zeucurus, but general color of upperparts buff instead of gray; adult in summer plumage indistinguishable in color from leucurus; wings and tail decidedly longer than in leucurus.”

The white-tailed ptarmigan is an alpine species, a permanent resident in the high mountains, above timber line during most of the year at least. In the southern portion of its habitat it ranges from 10,000 to 14,000 feet altitude and somewhat lower farther north. It is the only ptarmigan known to breed within the limits of the United States. Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1918) gives the following attractive description of its haunts in the Glacier National Park:

Skirting an acre of snow, I zigzagged back and forth over the face of the “ideal ptarmigan slope,” open to swift-winged enemies, but by its broken surface and variety of colors affording a safe background for ptarmigan In the mixed summer plumage. Even the wide expanse of slide rock was broken by occasional dwarf evergreens and streaks of grass, and many of its red ahales were patterned with lemon-yellow or curly-brown lichen covering deep ripple marks. Above the main mass of slide was a wide grassy slope of soft yellowish brown tones that would soon match the brown of the ptarmigan. Above this the narrow outcropping ledges and stony slopes made a terraced Alpine flower garden, one of the gardens that are among the choicest of all nature’s lavish gifts to man; this one, with its maturing seed harvest, providing veritable grain fields for hungary bird and beast. Some of these Alpine terraces were fairly ~;’hite with the lovely loxv, wide-smiling Drpes octopetala. In other places the beds of white were spotted with the pink mossy cushions of Silene acauhis, while in still others there were clumps of dwarf sedum, whose darkred flowers and seed pods contrasting strikingly with their pale green leaves might ivell attract the attention of furry vegetarians locating granarIes, and make good feeding grounds for the Arctic grouse.

Nesting: Bendire (1892) quotes A. XV. Anthony as writing:

In southern Colorado, where I have met with this species, nesting must begin some time from the first to the middle of June, as I have found young birds but an hour or so from the egg, from July 1 to the 15th. The nests I have seen were located In the loose rocky ddbris of steep hillsides, a simple depression in the short fine grass which grows in small patches between the rocks above the timber line. Although utterly devoid of protection from bush or shrub, so nearly does the sitting bird resemble the gray bowiders which surround her on every side that the discovery of the nest is due largely to accident. When Incubating it is nearly impossible to flush the bird, according to my experience. Twice have I escaped stepping upon a sitting Ptarmigan by only an Inch or so, and once I reined in my horse at a time when another step would have crushed out the life of a brood of nine chicks but an hour or so from the egg. In this case the parent crouched at the horses feet, and, though in momentary danger of being stepped on, made no attempt to escape until I had dismounted and put out my hand to catch her. She then fluttered to the top of a rock a few feet distant, and watched me as I handled the young, constantly uttering low anxious protests. The chicks were still too young to escape, mere little awkward bunches of down that stumbled and fell over one another when they attempted to run.

He quotes Doctor Coues’s description of a nest as follows:

The nest In its present state measures scarcely 5 inches in diameter by about an inch in depth. It thus seems rather small for the size of the bird, but Is probably somewhat compressed in transportation. The shape is saucer-like, but with very little concavity of surface. The bottom is decidedly and regularly convex in all directions, apparently fitting a considerable depression in the ground. The outline is to all intents circular. The nest is rather closely matted, the material interlacing it in all directions, and retains considerable consistency. The material Is chiefly fine dried-grass stems; with these are mixed, however, a few small leaves and weed tops and quite a number of feathers. The latter, evidently those of the parent birds, are imbedded through out the substance of the nest, though more numerous upon its surface, where a dozen or so are deposited; there may have been some loose ones lost In handling.

Illustrating the perfectly concealing coloration of the bird on its open nest, Evan Lewis (1904) writes:

On reaching timber-line a Junco was seen building, and a search was made for a loose stone to mark the spot for a photograph when the set was complete. In the search I was just about to put my hand on a Ptarmlgan when I saw what it was. r then matle two exposures with the small camera and left the camera on top of a large rock to mark the spot, the nest being three steps and one foot due south from the mark. I went to the cabin at the lake and got the large camera and tripod. When I returned I took three rather shorter steps, as I supposed, and looked for the bird or its nest. For ten minutes I looked over the ground foot by foot. I could not believe my own eyes that the bird was not there, yet I could not see her. At last I was about to return to the mark and step the ground over again, when a reflection from the bird’s eye showed her to me just one foot from where I was standing.

IV. C. Bradhury (1915) had some similar experiences. Nests, which he had previously located and marked, he had difficulty in finding again even when standing within a few feet of them. One nest was right beside a stone that his foot was on; but it had been lightly covered with grass when the bird left it. In one case he found that only three eggs had been deposited in a period of five days.

Eggs: The white-tailed ptarmigan has been credited with laying as many as 15 eggs and as few as 4; probably the usual numbers run from 6 to 8. In shape they vary from ovate to elongate-ovate, and they have little or no gloss. They are quite unlike other ptarmigans’ eggs and are colored more like small eggs of the dusky grouse. The ground color is usually “cartridge buff” or “pinkish buff” and rarely “cinnamon-buff.” The lightest-colored eggs are sometimes nearly immaculate; most of the eggs are more or less evenly covered with small spots or fine dots; some are more heavily marked with larger spots or small blotches; but the ground is never largely concealed. The markings are in various shades of brown, usually very dark brown, “Vandyke brown” to “bone brown,” but sometimes as light as “snuff brown” or “tawny-olive.” The markings are rarely concentrated into a ring. The measurements of 31 eggs average 42.9 by29.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 49.3 by 29.6, 44.7 by 32.3, 39 by 28.3, and 42.9 by 28.2 millimeters.

Young: Mrs. Bailey’s (1918) account of the behavior of mother and young is worth quoting, as follows:

Listening, I caught it again: the softest possible call of a mother ptarmigan! There she stood, only a few feet from me, bard to sue except when in motion, so well was she disguised by her huffy ground color finely streaked with gray. A round-bodied little grouse with a small head, she was surrounded by a brood of downy chicks, evidently just hatched, as their bills still held the sharp projection for pipping the shell. Preoccupied with the task of looking after ner little family, as I talked reassuringly to her, she ignored my presence. Nothing must hurry the unaccustomed little feet, nothing must interfere with their needed rest. Talking softly she gradually drew the brood in under her motherly wings and sat there only a few yards from me, half closing one eye in the sun and acting oblivious to all the world. Once the downy head of a chick appeared between the fluffed-out feathers of her breast, and once she preened her wing so she showed the white quills remaining from the white plumage of winter.

Her bill opened and her throat palpitated as if she were thirsty, as she sat brooding the young, and I imagined that the last hours of hatching high above water had been long ond trying to the faithful mother. But though water: clear cold mountain brooks: were below, no need of her own could make her careless of her little ones. Keeping up a motherly rhythmic cluckuk-ak, cluck-uk-uk, interlarded with a variety of tender mother notes, she led them down by almost imperceptible stages, slo~vly, gently, carefully, raising a furry foot and sliding it along a little at a time, creeping low over the ground with even trend, picking about as she went, while the little toddlerb gradually learned the use of their feet. Like a brood of downy chickens. some were more yellowish, some browner than others, but they all had dark lines on head and body giving them a well-defined color pattern. Peeping like little chickens, while their mother waited patiently for them they toddled around, trying to hop over tiny stones and saving themselves from going on their bills by stretching out wee finny wings. As chickens Just out of the shell instinctively pick up food from the ground, they gave little jabs at the fuzzy anthers of the dryas, little knowing that pollen was the best food they could find, a rich protein food from which the bees make bee bread to feed their larvae.

Plumages: In the small, downy chick of the white-tailed ptarmigan the crown, shoulders, central back, and central rump are “tawny,” bordered and sprinkled with black; the rest of the head shades from huffy white on the forehead to dull white on the chin and throat, with black spots and bands on the front and sides of the head in somewhat different patterns; the rest of the upper parts are variegated with pale huffs, grays, and black; the underparts are grayish white, with a slight huffy tinge on the breast. As with all other grouse, the juvenal plumage appears very early, the wings first when the chick is very small; and the neck and head are the last to be feathered.

By the time that the young bird is half grown it is fully feathered in juvenal plumage. In this the crown is barred or mottled with black, white, and pale buff; the back and rump are mainly verlniculated or peppered with black on a grayish white to “cinnamonbuff” ground color, but some feathers show larger black areas; the scapulars, wing coverts, and tail coverts are similar, with more black on the scapulars; the chin and throat are grayish white, barred with dusky; the breast and flanks are pnle buff, barred with black, and the belly is huffy white; the two outer primaries are white and the others dusky, the tail feathers are dusky, banded and mottled with “cinnamon-buff.” This plumage is hardly complete in August, before the postjuvenal molt into the late summer plumage begins. This is similar to the preliminary winter, or tutelar, plumage of adults. About a month later, in September, the molt into the purewhite winter plumage begins. These two molts effect a complete change of plumage between August and October, except that the two outer primaries are retained for a year, which serve to distinguish young birds from adults.

What little material is available seems to indicate that the molts and plumages of adults are similar to those of other ptarmigan. A partial prenuptial molt of the contour plumage, head, neck, and back takes places from March to June. The late summer, or tutelar, plumage is assumed by a partial postnuptial molt beginning late in July; this is much grayer, more finely vermiculated, and with less black than the nuptial plumage, which is more heavily vermiculated, with more black spots, on a more “ochraceous-buff” ground color. Females are more buffy or ochraceous than males in both plumages. A supplementary molt produces, in September and October, the complete change into the pure-white winter plumage.

Food: Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1905a) summarizes the food of this ptarmigan, as follows:

During winter in Colorado, according to Professor Cooke, they subsist, like other ptarmlgan, largely on willow buds. The stomachs of two birds collected at Summitville, Cob., in January, 1891, at an altitude of 18,O0~J feet, were found to contain bud twigs from one-third to one-half inch long, but the kind of bush from which they came could not be determined. Doctor Coues, quoting T. M. Trippe, states that the food of this bird is insects, leguminous flowers, and the buds and leaves of pines and firs. According to Major Bendire, the flowers and leaves of marsh marigold (CaIt1~a Zeptoscpala) and the leaf buds and catkins of the dwarf birch (Betatie gban4ulosa) are eaten. Dr. A. K. Fisher examined the stomachs of two downy chicks collected on Mount Rainier, Washington, and found beetles and flowers of heather (Caseiope raertea8Lf.uuL) and those of a small blueberry.

Mrs. Bailey (1928) adds:

The crop of one New Mexico specimen was filled mainly with leaves of the dwarf willow, and fruiting spikes of Polygonum v~viparstm, with one flower of Gcum rO88ii, while the gizzard held mainly Polygonum seeds, a few other small seeds, a few small grasshoppers, and other small insects.

Behavior: Quoting Trippe, Coues (1874) writes:

In localitIes where it is seldom molested it is very tame, and I have been informed by persons whose word is worthy of helief, that they have frequently killed it with sticks. But when persistently persecuted, it soon becomes wild, and leaves the range of a shot-gun with surprising quickness. After hunting several large flocks for three or four days, they grew so shy that it was difficult to approach within gunshot, although at first they had been comparatively tame. Nimble of foot, the Ptarmigan frequently prefers to Inn away on the approach of danger, rather than take wing, running over the rocks and leaping from point to point with great agility, stopping every little while to look at the object of alarm. I have sometimes chased them half a mile or more, over the rocky, craggy ridges of the main range, without being able to get within gunshot, or force them to take wing. The flight of the Ptarmigan Is strong, rapid, and at times sustained for a considerable distance, though usually they fly hut a few hundred yards before alighting again. It resembles that of the Prairie Hen, consisting of rapid flappings of the wings, alternating with the sailing flight of the latter bird. The note is a loud cackle, somewhat like the Prairie Hen’s, yet quite different; and when uttered by a large flock together, reminds one of the confused murmur and gabble of a flock of shore-birds about to take wing. It is a gregarious bird, associating in flocks throughout the year, except in the breeding season. The different broods gather together as soon as they are nearly grown, forming large flocks, sometimes of a hundred or more.

Dr. D. G. Elliot (1897) says:

They were not what may be called tame, unlike the Willow Grouse in thIs respect, but were always very uneasy at my presence, and ran about with uplifted tall as if uncertain which way to fly, but when they once got started there seemed to be no farther dl~culty In their minds as to the proper direction, which I noticed never led near where I stood. Sometimes I have seen them light on the bare limbs of a stunted tree or large bush at the edge of the timber line, where they stood perfectly motionless for quite a length of time, observing every movement I made, and then suddenly burst away with great speed uttering a low cackle as they flew. They are very skillful in concealing themselves, either squatting in the snow with only the bead exposed to view, or else crouching behind some stone or large bowider. In summer their peculiar gray plumage assimilates so xvell to the hue of the ground and the moss-covered stones lying about in all directions that it Is next to impossible to perceive them, and at this period, especially during the breeding season, they rarely move when approached, perhaps only going a few feet on one side to avoid being stepped upon.

Denis Gale wrote to Major Bendire (1892):

Irrespective of season, as a general rule, a single bird will not flush unless urged to It. During the summer months this Is especially noticeable; they will only move out of your way when directly in your path, and close upon them, by short tacks right and left, sidling off from you, at each tack changing sides, moving quickest on the short run just before slowing up for the turn. Two or more together are much more likely to flush, and if alarmed while flying will utter a quick repeated Icock, Ic6ck, very like the note uttered by Pediooaete8 p1uisiastellu~ catape8tris under similar circumstances.

Game: The white-tailed ptarmigan is a fine game bird for those who are hardy enough to stand the hard tramping necessary for its pursuit in the high mountains. Edwyn Sandys (1904) writes:

Unlike many of its kin, this bird Is not troubled with overconfidence in man, but is apt to fly smartly and present none too easy a mark. It Is also quite a runner, and taken altogether, the “snow quail,” as the miners call It, is a fit quarry for an expert, especially if he be a “tenderfoot,’ unused to Alpine work and the pure, thin air of the heights; for this piarmigan Is a lover of high altitudes, seldom, if ever, being seen lower than five or six thousand feet.

Fall: Dr. George Bird Grinnell wrote to Major Bendire (1892):

In the autumn the birds are generally rather wild, and if nearly approached become quite uneasy and run about, holding the tail elevated and looking very much like a white Fan-tail Pigeon. At this season the only cry that I have heard Is a sharp cackle like that of a frightened hen. This the bird begins to utter a short time before It takes wing, and continues It for quite a little while after having begun to fly.

On the high plateaus where this bird is found the wind often blows with a tremendous sweep and is almost strong enough to throw down a man. When such a kind is blowing the Ptarmigan dig out for themselves little nests or hollows In the snow banks, in which they lie with their heads toward the wind and quite protected from it. Often on the rocky slopes where there Is no snow they may be seen lying crouched on the ground behind rocks or small stones, with their heads directed to the quarter from which the wind blows. If startled from such a place they all take wing at once, looking like a flock of white Pigeons, and fly for a short distance, but as soon as they touch the ground again they throw themselves flat on it behind the most convenient shelter.

Winter: Sandys (1904) says:

At the approach of winter the broods of a district frequently join forces In a packlike formation. I have seen 40 or 50 together, and heard the miners speak of packs of several hundreds; this, however, is hearsay, and perhaps 100 birds together would be a large pack. During rough weather the birds will go under the snow; in fact, they will hide in snow whenever It is available.

During severe winters and when the snow is so deep that their food supply is covered, these ptarmigan desert their normal home above timber line and descend into the edges of the spruce timber on the hillsides or into the creek bottoms among the willows, where they can find food and shelter.

RAINIER WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN [Current A.O.U. = White-tailed Ptarmigan]


Dr. Walter P. Taylor (1920) described and named this dark race from a series of eight adults and four young birds collected on Mount Rainier, Wash, lie says that adults in nuptial plumage are similar to La~o pus Zeucurus leucurus, but dark areas more blackish; buffy wash over light areas not so consistently present, and when present paler.

Comparison with specimens of Lago pus Zeucurus leucurus from Moose Pass, British Columbia, Moose Pass, Alberta, and Moose Branch of Smoky River, Alberta (one specimen from Henry House, Alberta), practically topotypes of leucurus, all In nuptial plumage, indicates that the dark areas In rai~nierensta average more blackish than in leucur-u8. In the latter the shade is close to mummy brown (Ridgwny, Color Standards, 1912), while In raiinierensis they approximate one of the darker shades of blackish brown. The buffy portions of the feathers In ra~aocren~si8 are paler than In Icuourus, being, in the former, near light ochraceous-buff, while closer In the latter to ochraceous or ochraceoustawny.

There is no evidence that this race differs materially in habits from other white-tailed ptarmigan. Doctor Taylor (1927) says that it ranges in altitude between 6,000 and 8,000 feet in the Arctic-Alpine Zone all around the mountain, rarely dropping down into upper Hudsonian, except in winter.

The ptarmigan finds congenial surroundings on the pumice slopes at and above Umber line on Mount Rainier. Here the combination of bright light, freezing boreal blasts, dwarfed and wind-blown vegetation, and extensive snow and ice fields provide Arctic conditions in fact.

Nesting: Taylor describes a nest as follows:

Consciously or unconsciously the ptarmigan had here selected a nest site which for grandeur of outlook would be bard to equaL The nest was on the ground on the south side of a rock on a southwest slope of Pyramid Peak, at an altitude of about 6,100 feet, where the hardy conifers, dwarfed and matted in their unequal struggles with the elements, had at length given up completely. At first glance the nest did not appear to have been specially constructed; but it was later found that a hollow had been excavated and filled with dried vegetation. The nest itself was comfortably dry, though the soil below was damp, and doubtless usually frozen solid. A few feathers were scatlered about the nest. Plants in the immediate vicinity were the red and white heathers and the Siberian juniper. There were five eggs, one infertile, one addled, and three in various stagcs up to approximately 10 days’ development.

Voice: Taylor gives the best description of notes of this species that I have seen. Referring to the female, he writes:

While on the nest she several times uttered a hoot, hoot, hoot, hoot, hoot, a low, almost Inaudible, soothing series of grouse-like notes. Another note uttered by tbe ptarmigan as she turned the eggs was a cluck! cluck! much resembling the call of a barnyard fowl to her little chickens. When away from the nest she stalked about rather slowly, occasionally jerking hack her head in a characteristic manner, and regarded with evident anxiety the nest site about which we were grouped. If we approached the nest too closely the gentle bird was not a little perturbed and warned us pen-f! fJerrt! or sometimes p~t-prrrrt! prrrrt!

Of the male he says:

One of the birds, a cock, remained in the vicinity for upward of an hou~r, watching the observer and calling for his mate. His principal call was somethink like Ru-a queek! cluck-luck-a-luck, cluck-luck-a-luck! or sometimes Squeek! cluck! cluck! cluck! cluck! Cluck lucka~-lucka–lucka-cluck! Occasionally the call is blurred at the end, Cluck-rrrrrrrr! The squeaking note, which is’ of staccato quality, high pitched and conspicuous, may be twice repeated, as follows: Squeak! chuck chuck chuck chuck chuck chuck chuck Squeek! chuck chuck chuck! A call somewhat resembling that of the red-shafted flicker was heard yip! yip! yip! yip! Another combination Yip, yip 8qucech! yip! pip! A warning note may be represented by the syllable chirrr chirp- chirp- chirp- ckinchirp-.

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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