Last week on the flanks of Mt Rainier, I had my first encounter with White-tailed Ptarmigan in decades. First I heard soft clucking, then after scanning distant slopes, I found them practically at my feet. An adult stood sentry while two chicks moved slowly about the rocks, squeezing into crevices to become even more camouflaged than they already were.
Few organisms can survive in the alpine tundra. White-tailed Ptarmigan, the smallest species of grouse, can. Breeding American Pipits and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches spend part of the year here. Pikas, Marmots, Mountain Goats, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels and Least Chipmunks also inhabit this scenic but tough climatic neighborhood.
White-tailed Ptarmigan are uniquely adapted to living in this cold, harsh environment. They have feathered toes, cryptic plumage, and an energy-conserving lifestyle that involves little unnecessary movement. Their feet have been referred to as “avian snowshoes.” During winter, they develop dense feathering on both sides of their feet, and their claws become longer. These adaptations provide insulation, a firm platform and good traction for snow travel. Their beautiful plumage morphs from brown, patterned tones in the summer to all white in the winter to match their surroundings.
WT Ptarmigan nest in shallow depressions that are lined with fine grass, lichens, leaves and flowers. Their diet consists of some of the same things: buds, stems, seeds, leaves, flowers, and insects.
Like another high-elevation specialist I have written about before, the American Pika, WT Ptarmigan are stressed by warmer temperatures. They will often bathe in the snow when temperatures exceed 70 degrees F. Unlike Pikas, their population is apparently not at risk, at least for now. According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources White-tailed Ptarmigan is a species of “Least Concern.”
It is always a treat to encounter these exquisitely patterned birds and often a surprise. Due to their superb camouflage and quiet, sedentary nature, they can be in close proximity without gaining your notice. I recall having a boisterous lunch years ago with friends in the North Cascades and noticing WT Ptarmigan only after they moved slightly when we departed after sitting literally beside them for 30 minutes. They stand still, calmly watching you with their reddish eyes, perhaps knowing that you will not be staying long in their world, the alpine tundra.
Sources: Birders Handbook, Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye; Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website; A Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, David Allen Sibley