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Rock Ptarmigan Fact File

Lagopus muta

Credit: Public Domain

Weight

430-740g

(15-26oz)

Length

31-36cm

(12.2-14.2in)

Lifespan

Wild 20 years

Captive 20 years

Diet

Omnivore

Seeds, Plants, Insects

Conservation Status

IUCN

Least Concern

The rock ptarmigan is known by a range of names across their range which extends through North America, Asia and Europe. These names may include snow chicken, hare feet and thunder goose.

These birds are omnivores with young feeding on invertebrates but as they age they will move towards consuming more plants and berries.

Unusually for birds this species is considered monogamous. Males display at the start of the breeding season to attract a mate and then assist her to raise the chicks.

They are threatened through habitat loss and hunting for food or sport.

Read on to learn more about these brilliant birds.

Appearance

What does the rock ptarmigan look like?

The rock ptarmigan has variable plumage which will change with the seasons. During summer they have mottled white and black or brown feathers. These provide camouflage helping to protection them against predators.

During winter they become almost entirely white to blend with the snow falls across their range. Males tend to complete their molts later than the females.

A red comb sits above the eye of both the male and female. This is typically hidden by feathers in the female. In males it will grow during the breeding season as it become engorge with blood.

They have a short bill which is adapted for their favored foods. This is colored black.

Their legs are covered by feathers. These help to keep them warm but also act as snowshoes which distribute their weight across a larger area.

An average rock ptarmigan will measure 31-36cm (12.2-14.2in) long with a weight between 430 and 740g (15-26oz).

Diet

What does the rock ptarmigan eat?


The rock ptarmigan is an omnivore. They will feed on berries, shoots, plants, seeds and invertebrates. It is most often juveniles which will feed on invertebrates.

These birds will feed on the ground.

During winter these birds will follow herds of caribou and musk ox and feed where they have scraped away the snow.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Credit: Public Domain

Range

Where can you find the rock ptarmigan?

The rock ptarmigan has a wide range across Europe, Asia and North America. Here they can be found in the following countries – Andorra; Austria; Bulgaria; Canada; China; Finland; France; Germany; Greenland; Iceland; Italy; Japan; Kazakhstan; Liechtenstein; Mongolia; Norway; Russia; Slovenia; Spain; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; Sweden; Switzerland; Tajikistan; United Kingdom and the United States.

An introduced population of this species is found in the Faroe Islands.

Habitat

What kind of environment does the rock ptarmigan live in?

These animals are found in rock tundra habitats which feature little vegetation. They rarely venture in to areas which are located below the tree lines.

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Reproduction

How does the rock ptarmigan produce its young?

Breeding season is subject to some small variation across their range but egg laying typically falls during spring in most areas. Males will form a territory at the beginning of the breeding season from which they can attract a female.

These birds are considered monogamous, a rare trait for a gamebird. Pairs will work together to raise their young.

Their nest is a small scrape in the ground which will be lined with plants and feathers. Typically this is built in the shelter of a stone or shrub.


Between 6 and 10 eggs will be deposited in the nest. These are incubated for between 21 and 24 days. A single brood is raised each year.

Sexual maturity is reached at 6 months of age.

Behavior

What does the rock ptarmigan do with its day?

During the breeding season these birds live together as a pair. Outside of this they will separate in to flocks made up of a single species.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Credit: Public Domain

Predators and Threats

What is impacting the survival of the rock ptarmigan?

Natural predators of the rock ptarmigan include birds of prey such as golden eagles and bald eagles, polar bears, lynx, wolverine, wolves, or the arctic fox.

Populations of these birds are decreasing in their range. The population of the rock ptarmigan is estimated to be between 5,000,000 and 24,999,999.

Their decline has been brought about by pressures such as habitat loss and degradation along with over-hunting. Habitat loss is being driven by the establishment of ski facilities in tourism areas.

They are also being affected by climate change which is altering their habitat and making it unsuitable for their needs.

Quick facts

This species is the official bird of Nunavut. They are the official game bird of Labrador. In Japan they are the official bird of the Toyama prefecture.

These birds are known by a range of alternative names across their range. In the US they are referred to as 'snow chickens', in Greece as 'hare feet' and as thunder birds in 'Japan.'

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Credit: Public Domain

References

Christiansen, P., 2019. Birds. London: Amber Books Ltd.

Ambrose, J., 2015. Wildlife Of The World. 1st ed. London: Dorling Kindersley

Audubon. 2021. Rock Ptarmigan. [online] Available at: <https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/rock-ptarmigan> [Accessed 15 December 2021].

BirdLife International. 2016. Lagopus muta (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22679464A113623562. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22679464A89358137.en. Accessed on 15 December 2021.

2021. Ptarmigan. [online] Available at: <https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/to-do/wildlife/ptarmigans> [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Nhpbs.org. 2021. Rock Ptarmigan – Lagopus mutus – NatureWorks. [online] Available at: <https://nhpbs.org/natureworks/rockptarmigan.htm> [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Adfg.alaska.gov. 2021. Rock Ptarmigan Species Profile, Alaska Department of Fish and Game. [online] Available at: <https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=rockptarmigan.main> [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Nature.ca. 2021. Rock Ptarmigan: Natural History Notebooks. [online] Available at: <https://nature.ca/notebooks/english/rockptarmigan.htm> [Accessed 15 December 2021].

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