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Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)

By far the most common animal we saw on our 1998 trip to Churchill. Often in flocks of 20 to 50 birds. They survive the subarctic winter by eating willow buds. Here, in the absence of snow, they have access to other food on the tundra. Note the feathered feet!

The rock ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) and willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) are members of the grouse family. They live in the high northern tundras of Alaska and Canada year-around. They are flocking birds who live on berries, seeds, and mosses in summer and willow buds and bark above the snow during the winter. Their feathered legs and feet permit them to survive in colder climates than most other birds; even their nostrils are covered by feathers. Males and females are similar in size (about 1–1.5 pounds) and coloring. Unlike most birds, ptarmigan undergo three molts per year, with color changes that (usually) maximize their camouflage. The bird shown, like the foxes, has changed to his winter coloration because the ground would ordinarily be snow-covered by this date (late October).

In the high northern spring ptarmigan make nests by digging a hollow in the tundra and lining it with grasses, feathers, and bits of fur. Six to 12 eggs are laid and hatch in about 21 days. Rock ptarmigan chicks are ready to fly about 15-16 days after hatching, willow ptarmigan chicks as early as 7 days.

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