The willow ptarmigan also known as the Willow Ptarmigan is a medium to large ground-dwelling bird and is the most numerous of the three species of ptarmigan. Males and females are about the same size, the adult length varying between 35 and 44 centimetres (14 and 17 in) with a wingspan ranging from 60 and 65 centimetres (24 and 26 in). The weight is 430 to 810 grams (15 to 29 oz). It is deep-chested and has a fairly long neck, a broad bill, short feathered legs and a moderately short rounded tail. In the summer, the male's plumage is marbled brown, with a reddish hue to the neck and breast, a black tail and white wings and underparts. It has two inconspicuous wattles above the eyes, which become red and prominent in the breeding season. The female is similar in appearance but lacks the wattles and has brown feathers scattered among the white feathers on the belly. During winter, the plumage of both sexes becomes completely white, except for some black feathers in the tail. Immature birds resemble the adults. The willow ptarmigan can be distinguished from the closely related rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by its larger size and thicker bill and by the fact that it is not generally found above the tree line while the rock ptarmigan prefers more elevated, barren habitat. The summer plumage is browner and in the winter, the male willow ptarmigan lacks the rock ptarmigan's black stripe between the eyes and bill. The white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) in North America is smaller, has a white tail and finely-barred greyer plumage and lives permanently above the tree line.
Habitat and Distribution
The willow ptarmigan has a circum-boreal distribution. It is native to Canada and the United States, China, Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain. It primarily occupies subalpine and subarctic habitats such as sparse pine and birch forests, thickets with willow and alder trees, heather moors, tundra and mountain slopes. In the winter, females and sub-adults may move to lower altitudes and seek shelter in valleys or in more densely vegetated areas, but adult males usually remain in the subalpine region. The red grouse is common on heather-clad moorland across the north and west of Great Britain and in localised areas of Ireland.
The willow ptarmigan has a varied and seasonal diet. The bird is herbivorous for most of its life and subsists on various plant materials. As juveniles, they may feed on insects due to an inability to digest plant material caused by underdeveloped cecums. In the summer, their diet is highly varied and may consist of berries, flowers, leaves, twigs and seeds.
Male willow ptarmigans are territorial birds. Males arrive in the breeding areas and set up territories in April and May, aggressively defending them against male interlopers. When the females arrive a few weeks later, the male performs courtship displays such as aerial manoeuvres, strutting and tail-fanning. When she has chosen a mate and a nesting site, the female lays a clutch of six to ten eggs in a shallow depression on the ground. The nest site is usually in a hidden location at the edge of a clearing.
Calls and Songs
The voice is low-pitched and guttural and includes chuckles, repeated clucking sounds, expostulations. When displaying, the male makes rattles and barking noises.