Padding around on feathered feet, the White-Tailed Ptarmigan is amazingly well adapted for its full time life above treeline in the “tundra” spaces of the mountains. They can tunnel into snowdrifts and hide from the cold in the winter. They stay together in larger groups during the cold season to conserve body warmth, and in fact they are experts at body heat management. Those feathered feet are an interesting adaptation; not only do they insulate their feet to minimize winter heat loss, they act as snowshoes. The already lightweight birds can literally walk on snow effortlessly.
For these birds are more walkers than fliers, and they don’t even like to run. Other than to avoid predation, they virtually never fly. And it’s a good job, too, for if you spook them into flying, they can die due to heat build up. It’s not uncommon to find a small flock, and rather than run away, they will wander around you slowly, trying to act invisible. Think it doesn’t work? Just look at the photo at left.
Because like their cousins the Spruce Grouse, they are masters of camouflage, to the point where they are so convinced you can’t see them that stepping on them is possible. In their summer coats, they match perfectly with the rock and tundra; in the winter, they turn pure white and disappear in the snow.
They build nests on the ground that are not hidden and are easy to step on, too, like the one at right. Once again, they rely on mom’s camouflage to hide the nest while they’re on it. The chicks –hatched in June — start off with ragged, poor plumage and grow into their disguise over their first summer.
While not that common, in the right habitat, there are a lot of them. Our favourite places to find them include Sparrowhawk Tarns, Old Goat Glacier Basin, Arethusa Cirque and the aptly named Ptarmigan Cirque. They don’t make much noise – the odd, quiet, hoot is all you ever hear – so you see instead what appears to be rocks or clumps of brush out for a walk, like the guy to the left. They live in family groups of 2-6, but collect in groups of a dozen or more in the winter. We know of backcountry skiers who see them wandering on the snow in the winter, though they tend to like flat meadow areas with willows rather than slopes worth skiing on.
These guys are part of the High Elevation Localized Species (HELS) research project being conducted by our friends at the Bow Valley Naturalists. If you see a ptarmigan in your travels, feel free to register that sighting on their website here.
Meet some of the other fascinating Critters of Kananaskis Country here!