The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is an Arctic gamebird from the grouse family. It lives in northern regions of Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China. The birds are capable of surviving in extremely harsh winter conditions: indeed they do not fly south during the Arctic winter. Instead they hunker down to last out the 24 hour long nights of bitter ice and cold. In order to survive in permafrost landscapes, ptarmigans have water and wind proof feathers (which seal the chilling moisture away from their insulating down). They also have feathered feet which act like snowshoes—their taxonomical name “Lagopus” comes from Greek roots meaning “hare foot”). Ptarmigans are omnivores and they eat insects, seeds, berries, and leaves during the fleeting summers. More remarkably, during the brutal winter months they can find food in the form of catkins, twigs, and buds buried beneath the snow and ice.
Not only are ptarmigans adapted to the cold, they are also astonishing masters of camouflage. In winter they can fledge to become completely white. In spring and fall the birds are white with black and gray blotches. During the summer, the birds’ plumage becomes brown and yellow so they can blend in with the gorse and lichen. The following two pictures of brooding mothers should illustrate this point: the mama ptarmigans are hard to find even though they are pretty much the only things in the pictures!
In spring male ptarmigans find a mate by emitting a guttural croak (although there is also a correlation between the size of a male’s comb and his testosterone level). Females lay up to six eggs. Even in the egg, ptarmigans are masters of being inconspicuous. Their eggs are stippled with spots and specks in order to blend in seamlessly with the rocks and tundra for the brief moments that ptarmigans are not sitting their nests.
During the last ice age, the rock ptarmigan had an even wider range (which is astonishing, considering how widespread the birds are today). Ptarmigans are a beautiful and timeless emblem of the north. Vikings carved the birds on knife hilts and the creatures are also a mainstay of Sami and Inuit art.