Lagopus mutarock ptarmigan

Geographic Range

Circumpolar, found in alpine and arctic tundra regions of Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, Finland, Greenland, etc. with scattered southern outposts in Japan, Switzerland, and Spain.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995)


Winter habitat is usually brushy slopes near the timberline, where vegetation pokes through snow. Males tend to remain in alpine-like habitats, while females seek more cover.

Spring and summer habitat is more open, with males choosing territory sparsely covered in stunted brush and with many rocky outlooks from which to keep watch for other ptarmigans.

Chicks tend to prefer swales and ridges without dense brush, where they can fly behind rises to escape danger.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995)

Physical Description

The rock ptarmigan looks like a small grouse or pheasant; adults are beween 13 and 16 inches long. It has pure white plumage in winter, except for a black tail, which is present in both sexes year-round. Both sexes are barred with nondescript brown and black markings in summer, with females more coarsely marked than males. Males wait longer than females to shed the white plumage in the breeding season. This is part of the courtship display, but also leads to heavier predation of males by gyrfalcons. Males have a black streak from beak to eye, a scarlet comb near the eyes, and are generally pale on the upper body in fall. Some, but not all, females show the black eye streak. Females are nearly invisible against the tundra in summer, and are slightly smaller than males.

All ptarmigans have feathered feet, which act as snowshoes, allowing the birds to walk in soft snow. The feathers may also increase insulation for these year-round arctic dwellers.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995; Hays, 1998)


Females nest on the ground in shallow depressions, lining the nest with small amounts of feathers and plant material. Nesting habitat is most often a bare rocky outcrop with little vegetation. Because some overhead protection is usually sought, the nest is often located close to a large rock.

The female incubates 7 to 10 eggs without help from the male. Incubation typically lasts 21 days, and the downy chicks are able to leave the nest within a day of hatching. The female tends her young, but they feed themselves, and are able to fly at about 10 days. Chicks are independent at 10 to 12 weeks old.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995)


The rock ptarmigan may migrate short distances, leaving highland nesting ground behind in winter and flying southward in flocks toward lowland wintering grounds, but it does not leave the tundra. Sexes separate during winter, forming single sex groups.

Flocks disassemble in early spring. At that time males choose and vigorously defend large territories. High speed aerial chases with much vocalization are common when territory is threatened. The territory display includes elaborate song flights. These begin with the male leaping into the air and flapping. He then flies vertically until he reaches stalling speed, at which point he spreads his tail and parachutes to the ground, making a gutteral, staccato call.

Courtship displays involve the male circling the female while dragging one wing on the ground, fanning the tail, and raising the red eye combs.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Adults are almost exlusive vegetarians, but young chicks feed heavily on insects, spiders, and snails. Major summer diet is a mixture of plant material, especially blueberries, horsetail tips, crowberries, mountain avens, and heads of sedges. Winter foods are mostly buds and catkins of dwarf birch, and some willow buds and twigs.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Rock ptarmigans are popular as game birds, providing both food and fun for residents of the Alaskan hinterlands. They can be hunted with shotguns or snared.

(Weeden, 1995).

Conservation Status

Scarce near arctic settlements, but abundant across vast areas of tundra. Populations are known for great flutuations, usually following a ten year cycle, a phenomenon that is especially well documented in Iceland.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Kaufman, 1996; Weeden, 1995)

Other Comments

Subspecies include: Lagopus mutus evermanni, L. m. townsendi, L. m. gabrielsoni, L. m. sanfordi, L. m. chamberlaini, L. m. atkhensis, L. m. yunaskensis, L. m. nelsoni, L. m. rupestris, L. m. dixoni, and L. m. welchi.

Other common names include: Arctic grouse, barren-ground bird, rocker, snow grouse, and white grouse.

The name Lagopus means "foot of a rabbit" refering to the ptarmigan's feathered feet, which resemble the furry feet of a rabbit.

Because of its tendency to dwell in mountainous territory where there are frequent storms and much mist, the Japanese call rock ptarmigans "Thunderbird."

Major predators of rock ptarmigan include gyrfalcons and other raptors. Many studies have been done on how ptarmigan populations affect the distribution of gyrfalcons.

(Johnsgard, 1973; Ochi, 1997)


Mary Hejna (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


uses sight to communicate


Johnsgard, Paul A. 1973. Grouse and Quails of North America. University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Ochi, Shinji. 1997.

Hays, Hank. 1998. "Rock Ptarmigan image" (On-line). Available (July 31, 2002).

Weeden, Robert B. 1995.