Birds – Willow Ptarmigan

The Ptarmigan are compact-bodied, typically Grouse-like birds ranging from twelve to about seventeen inches in length, and may be known at once by having the tarsi, feet, and toes completely and densely feathered. The tail is composed of sixteen feathers which are of nearly equal length. Of the various species we may appropriately begin with the Willow Ptarmigan, or Willow Grouse (L. Lagopus), as it is often called, which is found throughout the northern portions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is fifteen or fifteen and one half inches long, both sexes in winter being pure white, with all the tail-feathers except the middle pair black. In North America they are confined during the nesting season to the fur countries; but in winter they are more or less migratory, coming south often in great numbers as far as Manitoba, and occasionally entering the northern border of the United States. In spring as soon as the snow begins to melt they repair to the lower grounds and prepare for the nuptial season, and may soon be heard uttering their peculiar hoarse call. Turner tells us that in order to attract the attention of the female the male resorts to the highest portions of the tract, “whence he launches into the air, uttering a barking sound of nearly a dozen notes, thence sails or flutters in a circle to alight at the place whence he started. Immediately on alighting he utters a sound similar to the Indian word chee-xwau (what is it?) and repeats it several times, and in the course of a few minutes again launches in the air. Early in the morning hundreds of these birds may be heard, continuing until nearly eleven o’clock, when the bird then becomes silent until about three o’clock, when he again goes through the same performance.” Each male guards his territory against others of his kind, and when an intruder comes, “battles ensue which for fierceness are seldom equaled by birds of larger size.” The nest, always placed on the ground, is a mere depression in the mosses and perhaps lined with a few blades or stalks of grass. The eggs usually vary in number between seven and thirteen, but as many as seventeen and even twenty have been reported, which would seem to indicate that two females may occasionally deposit eggs in the same nest; this, however, is not confirmed by actual observation. In color the eggs range from cream to reddish buff overlaid with spots and blotches of reddish brown. The female sits very closely and will sometimes permit herself to be trodden on or even taken in the hand before attempting to leave. On other occasions the female will flutter off, or call out in distressed tones, and act as if she had been severely wounded. The period of incubation is thought by Turner to be seven-teen days, and when the chicks are hatched, both parents display great courage and devotion in protecting them. By November i the young birds have attained their full growth, when all associate in flocks often of great size, though in winter MacFarlane states that in the neighborhood of Fort Anderson it is rare to find more than two or three dozen together. They feed upon buds, seeds, and berries. A subspecies of this, known as Allen’s Ptarmigan (L. lago pus alleni), is confined to Newfoundland, and differs from the typical form in having the shafts of the secondaries black instead of white, and according to Dr. Merriam, ” frequents rocky barrens, feeding on seeds and berries of the stunted plants that thrive in these exposed situations.”