Curious Nature: Where are the ptarmigan?
Vail, CO Colorado
A couple of weeks ago, I came home to a distressed message on my answering machine. The voice on the other end exclaimed, “Kim! Where are the white-tailed ptarmigan?!” The distraught messenger is a friend of mine, someone who I consider one of the most knowledgeable and active birders in the Eagle Valley area. She went on to say that during her alpine hikes this summer she’s seen plenty of pika but she hasn’t seen a single ptarmigan and she wanted me to join her on a mission to find some.
In case you are wondering, a ptarmigan is a bird. There are three species of ptarmigan that live in North America, and the white-tailed ptarmigan is the only one that lives in Colorado. The other two species, the willow ptarmigan and the rock ptarmigan, live on the tundra of Alaska and Canada. Ptarmigan are closely related to grouse but they are smaller and they solely inhabit alpine and arctic regions.
White-tailed ptarmigan are one of the few kinds of animals that spend their entire lives in the alpine zone of mountains – at and above timberline. Because these birds are so well camouflaged with feathers which molt several times each year, you might hear a ptarmigan’s soft clucking before you actually see it. The last time I saw one while out hiking a few years ago, I almost stepped on the bird before it flew up in a flush and startled me out of my wits. In the summer, their grey and white streaked feathers blend in with the rocks. In the winter, the birds are pure white except for their tiny black eyes, beak and toenails.
Like pika, the smallest members of the rabbit family who live in rock talus piles high on mountains, ptarmigan are a cold-adapted species. During the winter, white-tailed ptarmigan stay warm at night by digging and wiggling themselves into an insulating snowpack. In the summer, they live amongst the rocks and low growing alpine krummholtz. White-tailed ptarmigan have been historically sighted in almost all mountain ranges of Colorado including locally in the Gore Range and the Sawatch Range.
Recently, there has been some concern that populations of white-tailed ptarmigan in Colorado may be dwindling due to warming temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt, but definitive data is currently lacking. The timing of a ptarmigan’s spring breeding is tied to day length and also to available snow-free nest sites. One of the concerns is that if ptarmigans mate too early in the spring then their eggs and newly hatched young may be more vulnerable to death caused by late spring freeze and frost events. Another concern is that as climate changes and treeline rises in elevation over the coming decades, there could be less and less tundra and willow habitat for the ptarmigan. Finally, the main cause of death to ptarmigan is typically predation. Their predators include golden eagles, weasels, coyotes, foxes and ravens which eat the eggs and young. Any environmental or human factor which causes these species to increase their abundance in alpine areas could threaten ptarmigan populations.
A new research project to study white-tailed ptarmigan in the Trail Ridge Road area of Rocky Mountain National Park has just been established by the Rocky Mountain Nature Association. Colorado State University graduate student Greg Wann will count the ptarmigan there and compare his data to numbers collected by the Colorado Division of Wildlife during an earlier study.
White-tailed ptarmigan are highly dependent on healthy alpine ecosystems where willows and wildflowers grow. During the spring and summer, the birds complement their diets with flowers like clover, cinquefoil, avens, saxifrage and buttercup. During the late fall and through the winter, they are almost solely dependent on the tips and buds of tall willows that they can access above the snowpack. They also need grit, which aids in their digestion of the willow.
In Eagle County, white-tailed ptarmigan are known to occur but they are apparently somewhat rare. I haven’t seen many in recent years, but, then again, I haven’t necessarily been looking for them specifically. I am curious to know more. If you happen to see a ptarmigan along one of your hikes in the alpine, please don’t disturb it, but do let me know. Then I might be able to give my friend a call back and answer her question “Where are the ptarmigan?!”
Kim Langmaid is the founder and senior education consultant at Walking Mountains (formerly Gore Range Natural Science School). As a world observer, Kim loves to experience the unexpected lessons and peaceful moments that nature offers.
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