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Animal Facts: Rock ptarmigan

  • Published Jul 01, 2023
  • Updated Jul 14
  • 461 words
  • 2 minutes
The rock ptarmigan is the official bird for the Canadian territory of Nunavut, where it is known as the aqiggiq. (Photo: Michael F. Horn/Flickr)
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As a seasonally camouflaged species, the rock ptarmigan has brown plumage in the summer and white plumage in the winter to blend in with its surroundings. 

 

Fast Facts

Common name: Rock ptarmigan

Scientific name: Lagopus muta

Inuktitut name: Aqiggiq

Type: bird

Diet: omnivore

Group name: covey

Average weight: 440 – 640 grams

Average length: 32 – 40 centimetres

COSEWIC status: none

Did you know?

Most birds molt twice a year, resulting in two separative plumages – a basic plumage and a breeding plumage. The rock ptarmigan, however, is one of a handful of birds to have three seasonal plumages – one for winter, one for the summer mating season, and one for fall.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

As members of the grouse family, ptarmigan have thick bodies, small rounded wings, and short tails and legs. The birds also have feathered legs and feet that act as snowshoes, preventing them from sinking into the snow, keeping them warm. 

The ptarmigan’s three seasonable plumages also helps to keep the birds well-camouflaged. 

In winter, all members of both sexes are mostly white. Males, and some females, have a black stripe running from their eyes to the end of their bills. During springtime, ptarmigan begin to shed their old feathers, starting with the head and progressing towards the tail, until a new plumage is revealed. At snow melt, female ptarmigan unveil a brown, gold, and black breeding plumage. Males will keep their winter plumage throughout mating season, but will develop barred plumage similar to their female counterparts during the late summer. During a short fall molt, all rock ptarmigan become more grey on their heads and upper bodies, while their belly and legs become white. 

Regardless of the season, the birds have distinct red streaks across the top of the eyes called “combs.” During mating season, male ptarmigan’s combs are particularly pronounced, while females’ combs are more subtle, year-round. 

Throughout the year, rock ptarmigan meander through tundra, pecking at the ground in search of food. 

Diet

The ptarmigan is mostly vegetarian, feeding on buds, leaves, and seeds. Younger rock ptarmigan’s diets skew more carnivorous; young chicks will rely heavily on insects, spiders, and snails at first. The birds will also swallow grit to help digest rough plant material. During the winter, ptarmigan will rely on feeding craters – areas of disturbed snow where larger animals, like caribou or arctic hares, had fed, leaving behind edible plant debris. 

Habitat and distribution

Rock ptarmigan are a non-migratory species; they’ll spend their lives living in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. In Canada, breeding, resident rock ptarmigan can be found in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the northern reaches of British Columbia, Québec, and Newfoundland and Labrador.  

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