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Wildlife Guide: Ptarmigan Facts

3 min read

Known by different names worldwide, including "snow chickens" and "thunder bird," ptarmigans are belong to the grouse family. They are also the official bird of the territory Nunavut in Canada.

The ptarmigans scientific name is derived from Ancient Greek words meaning "hare foot," which refers to the bird's unique feathered feet.

Keep reading to learn more ptarmigan facts, including where they live, their diet, and whether ptarmigans are able to fly.


Regional Habitat: Arctic (including Greenland and Svalbard)

Name: Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Length: 1.1 feet (35cm)

Weight: 15 - 22 oz (450-640 grams)

Conservation status: Least concern

Diet: Seeds, flowers, buds, leaves, and berries.

Appearance: Depending on the season, ptarmigans change their appearance so they can be better camouflaged from their predators. In the summer, ptarmigans develop brown summer plumage with dark stripes, and in the winter their feathers change color and turn white, with white bellies and white wings—better protection from their predators in the snowy white landscape.

Where to see ptarmigans: There are many ptarmigan populations in the Arctic, and you can learn more in the webinar titled How birds survive the Arctic. Seeing ptarmigans in their natural environment is just one great reason to visit the Arctic.

Arctic expeditions to Greenland, including Essential Greenland: Southern Coasts and Disko Bay, and Greenland Adventure: Explore by Sea, Land and Air can provide excellent opportunities to see ptarmigans.

Svalbard is also home to many ptarmigan populations and other incredible polar wildlife. You can explore Svalbard with expeditions such as Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic, Spitsbergen In Depth: Big Islands, Big Adventure and on the expedition Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen.

What is a ptarmigan?

A ptarmigan is a medium-sized game bird (game bird refers to birds that are hunted in the wild for sport and/or food), and member of the grouse family.


Ptarmigans feed on the ground. During migration, ptarmigans flock together with hundreds of other ptarmigans. Even when they aren't breeding or migrating, ptarmigans typically live in flocks for protection, but these flocks are usually separated by gender: males live in one flock, and females in another.

In the wild, ptarmigans typically live 2 to 4 years and they are prey to foxes and other Arctic wildlife.

What do ptarmigans eat?

Depending on their life stage, ptarmigans have different diets.

Young birds are known to eat insects, larvae and snails while the adult ptarmigan diet consists mostly of seeds, flowers, buds, leaves, and berries.

Types of Ptarmigans

There are different types of ptarmigan species including:

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock ptarmigans do not migrate, and are sedentary birds that breed throughout the Arctic. They live on the rocky slopes of mountains, and in tundra without dense brush or vegetation.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock ptarmigans are diurnal birds, meaning that they are most active during the day, and they live most of their lives on the ground. When it's not breeding season, ptarmigans live in flocks with dozens of other ptarmigans for protection. The male rock ptarmigan and the female rock ptarmigan will live separately in different flocks.

Unlike many birds species that live in the Arctic, the rock ptarmigan does not gain excess mass for hibernation during the winter, and instead of hibernating the rock ptarmigan will migrate from place to place depending on food supply and snow conditions.

Rock ptarmigans don't utilize fat storage to help keep them warm, so they must forage frequently. When they aren't eating, these birds spend their time waiting out storms, burrowing into the snow, and avoiding predators such as Arctic foxes, glaucous gulls, Arctic skuas, golden eagles, ermines and snowy owls.

The rock ptarmigan is typically monogamous, but some males can have multiple partners. During mating season, male rock ptarmigans become very territorial and will make sounds of rattles and snores directed at other males.

Female rock ptarmigans create a depression in the ground which they line with moss, grass, feathers and lichen to create a nest. Typically female rock ptarmigans lay 6 to 12 eggs which they incubate for 20 to 21 days. When the chicks are born they are highly developed and leave the nest within 12 hours.

Willow Ptarmigan

The willow ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska.

Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan

The willow ptarmigan lives and breeds in northern Europe, and the tundra of Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

The white-tailed ptarmigan does not live in the Arctic polar region, but in the Rocky Mountains.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Can ptarmigans fly?

Ptarmigans spend most of their life on the ground but they are able to fly.

During mating season, male ptarmigans will take to the sky for courting rituals that include rapidly beating their wings and flying forward quickly, followed by gliding upwards with their tail feathers fanned out.

Where do ptarmigans live?

Ptarmigans live in locations throughout the world including remote regions of the Arctic and subarctic regions of North America and Greenland, as well in the Alps, the Altay mountains, and in Japan and Scotland.

It's estimated that worldwide ptarmigan populations exceed 8 million individuals.

Book your polar adventure today for your chance to see a ptarmigan in the Polar Regions.

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