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Rock Ptarmigan: Bird of the Tundra

The Rock Ptarmigan of the Arctic Tundra, stunning in its white winter camouflage feathers, is uniquely adapted to its harsh environment - even the feet of the "snow chicken" work like snowshoes!

Rock Ptarmigan in white winter plumage

Rock Ptarmigan in white winter plumage

Rock Ptarmigan, the Amazingly Adapted Arctic Snow Chicken

The Rock Ptarmigan of the Arctic tundra is a fascinating example of a bird that is ideally adapted to its surroundings.

Many birds change their colouring through the seasons, and the Rock Ptarmigan is no exception - from a mottled plumage that lets it hide among rocks in the breeding season, it changes into brilliant white feathers for camouflage in the Arctic snows.

But this northern member of the grouse family - the "snow chicken" as it's fondly called - goes one step further. Feathered toes act as snowshoes to help the Rock Ptarmigan move around on snow, and it can even burrow down into snow to find food.

Quick Facts - on the Rock Ptarmigan

  • Scientific name - lagopus muta
  • Rock Ptarmigans are a medium- to large-sized game bird in the grouse family, shaped very much like a chicken with a thick body and a short tail.
  • Barred grayish brown with white wings and under parts in summer, the Rock Ptarmigan's winter colouring is completely white. Males in winter have a dark eye stripe and a small red comb above the eye. The immature Rock Ptarmigans have the same colouring as the adult birds.
  • A true bird of the tundra that stays in the Arctic all year round, the Rock Ptarmigan has heavily feathered feet to act as snowshoes in winter, and it can burrow down through the snow to find food.
  • Rock Ptarmigan is the official territorial bird of Nunavut, Canada. It's close relative, the willow ptarmigan (lagopus lagopus), is the official state bird of Alaska, USA. The two birds are very much alike in their appearance but the willow ptarmigan has a larger bill and lacks the black eye stripe worn by the rock ptarmigan when the birds are in winter plumage.

Rock Ptarmigan in Winter Plumage

Rock Ptarmigan (''Lagopus muta'') in Winter Plumage

Rock Ptarmigan (''Lagopus muta'') in Winter Plumage

Sounds of the Rock Ptarmigan

The voice of the Rock Ptarmigan is quite a varied collection of guttural growls, clucks, and rattles. The male in breeding season is sometimes described as making a snoring sound. The excellent digital bird-sound collection of the Macaulay Library (free online access) has 25 audio clips of the Rock Ptarmigan, recorded in the Northwest Territories and territory of Nunavut, Canada, and in Alaska, USA.

Best Audio: Hear the Voice of the Rock Ptarmigan

Click here to listen to the call of the Rock Ptarmigan
This audio clip of the voice of the Rock Ptarmigan is provided by the Macaulay Library - Cornell Lab of Ornithology - one of the premier sites for birding information online.

Male and Female Birds

A pair of Rock Ptarmigans (Lagopus muta), showing both male and female birds. The male, in the foreground, still has much of its white winter plumage.

A pair of Rock Ptarmigans (Lagopus muta), showing both male and female birds. The male, in the foreground, still has much of its white winter plumage.

Changing Color with the Seasons

Both sexes of Rock Ptarmigan are represented in the beautiful photograph above, shot in Norway. Note that the male bird still has much of its winter plumage.

The male Rock Ptarmigan changes colour more slowly than the female, making a brightly visible white patch on the rocky tundra during mating season, while the brownish female is already well camouflaged, ready to sit discreetly and protectively on the nest.

Rock Ptarmigan in Summer Plumage

Rock Ptarmigan in Mount Ontake, showing the brown-toned summer plumage that helps the bird stay safely inconspicuous once the snow has melted away.

Rock Ptarmigan in Mount Ontake, showing the brown-toned summer plumage that helps the bird stay safely inconspicuous once the snow has melted away.

Where to See a Rock Ptarmigan

Range and Habitat

Rock Ptarmigans are birds of high-altitude alpine areas and the rocky tundra of the Arctic, found in all the countries that ring the North Pole.

A clutch of Rock Ptarmigans is usually 6-9 eggs, which will be incubated 22 days to hatching - but good luck if you try to see them! The eggs and nest are as well hidden on the rocky ground as the summer-coloured female who broods on them.

Rock Ptarmigan Male and Female

The unusual video below shows home video footage of a pair of Rock Ptarmigans taken by YouTube user Alistair Mackie, a game bird breeder and grouse fancier in Scotland. See the display, admire the plumage, and hear the ptarmigans' calls!

Video of Rock Ptarmigan in Captivity

Resources / References

If you'd like to learn more about this remarkable Arctic bird of the tundra, here are some of the very best resources for information on the Rock Ptarmigan from expert birders and naturalists, along with great photographs to enjoy.

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I haven't seen a Rock Ptarmigan - just its cousin, the willow ptarmigan, in the Rockies - but you can bet the "wish" part of my birding Life List has the Rock Ptarmigan written on it, just waiting for a trip to the Arctic.

Have you been lucky enough to see one?

Have you ever seen a Rock Ptarmigan?

Dorian Bodnariuc from Ottawa, Ontario Canada on July 30, 2014:

Haven't seen a rock ptarmigan yet Flycatcher, but it is pretty amazing how well adapted are these birds.

TanoCalvenoa on April 08, 2014:

I don't think I've ever seen one, but now at least I've seen pictures thanks to this great lens!

zafeyry on March 31, 2012:

I've never seen one since I live on the east coast, but they're cool birds :)

MelonyVaughan on March 29, 2012:

I haven't been fortunate enough to see one in real life. They are truly beautiful birds. Great lens!

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on March 28, 2012:

I've not yet seen a Rock Ptarmigan. Sure would love to. Thanks for expanding my knowledge.

RinchenChodron on March 27, 2012:

Yes, they are great - I used to live in Alaska - this lens makes me miss it! Thanks

iWriteaLot on March 24, 2012:

What a pretty bird! And their little voices sound like they're really trying to tell you something. I'm glad you included that recording. That was pretty cool. I wonder what they're saying.

jolou on March 24, 2012:

I have not heard of them before, they are very interesting birds. Love the photos.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on March 23, 2012:

No I have never seen those birds, unbelievable how they change their colour to suit the season. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed this lens.

Anthony Altorenna from Connecticut on March 23, 2012:

Living in the Northeast, I've seen quail and grouse but I've never seen a ptarmigan. But I would really like to add a rock ptarmigan encounter to my life list of wildlife sightings.

Einar A on March 23, 2012:

I see white-tailed ptarmigan fairly frequently on my hikes and climbs here in the central Rockies, but have never seen a rock ptarmigan. I really enjoyed getting to know more about them through your article!

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