Friday, February 27, 2015

Alaska State Bird: the Willow Ptarmigan

Alaska – a state usually associated with ice, snow, and cold. The winters are long and dark, with only a few hours of sunlight each day, while the summers are cool and bright, the sun barely dipping below the horizon at night. Although such a climate might seem harsh and unforgiving to some of us, there are plenty of animals that call Alaska home – including the Alaskan state bird, the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus).
 Young male Willow Ptarmigan in summer plumage (photo: the wikipedia files)

A member of the game bird order (turkey, quail, grouse, chickens), the Willow Ptarmigan is a species that thrives in cold, northern climates. In fact, its scientific name, Lagopus lagopus, literally translates to “hare-footed,” a reference to its feather-covered feet, which help to keep the bird warm in sub-zero temperatures. Alaskan weather isn’t always snowy, though. The summers in parts of Alaska can actually get quite warm, with temperatures in the 70’s (Fahrenheit). To successfully camouflage themselves in both seasons, Willow Ptarmigans have plumage that changes with the season. In the summer, their feathers will be brown with a hint of red, sporting a black tail and white underbelly. During the winter, however, their plumage becomes mainly white with the occasional black feathers.
Willow Ptarmigan in winter plumage (some become totally white) (photo: the Wikipedia files)

As the plumage of these birds is affected by the season, so is their diet. Willow Ptarmigans feed on low shrubs and, as their name suggests, willow trees. In the summer, the Ptarmigans will eat leaves, berries, flowers, and seeds. The winter months of course bring snow, which limits their diet. Heavy snowfall can cover shorter shrubs, preventing the Willow Ptarmigans from getting to the buds that comprise much of their winter diet. Fortunately in these cases, the Ptarmigans can still access the buds of the Alaska willow.
Willow Ptarmigan chicks (photo: the wikipedia files)

Willow Ptarmigans also make good parents. They are the only species of grouse in which the male helps to raise the chicks until they are independent. Most male birds of the world are monogamous, remaining with one mate for the entirety of the breeding season, and are extremely protective of territory, nest site, and mate. Despite such devoted parents, life as a chick is dangerous, and less than a third of the young will survive their first year. Not to worry, though.  The Willow Ptarmigan is a common and widespread species, in no current danger of extirpation or extinction.

At the World Bird Sanctuary we have a few of our own northern, cold-weather species. Next time you are visiting, keep an eye out for our Snowy Owl and Rough-legged Hawk. They’ll be happy to teach you a thing or two about surviving the cold of winter.

Submitted by JoHanna Burton, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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