Photo by Katharine Schulz
How do I recognize it?
A grouse of the Arctic and subarctic, the Willow Ptarmigan is one of four resident species of grouse in Manitoba. Unlike the other three species, the plumage of the Willow Ptarmigan changes seasonally to blend in with the environment. In winter the plumage is totally white, except for its black tail feathers. As spring approaches, the males and females acquire brown feathering along with their white feathers, which helps them blend into the environment. During breeding the male retains white feathers on the legs and lower half of the body but with rufous-brown feathers with black barring on the upper parts of the body. The female on the other hand takes on a duller brown plumage with some white retained on the wings - ideal camouflage for a ground-nesting bird.
Where does it live?
In Manitoba, the Willow Ptarmigan is present in open tundra habitats with areas of willow scrub in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. During winter, flocks of ptarmigan may be seen around Thompson and Flin Flon. In exceptional years (the last being in winter 1986-7) Willow Ptarmigan wintered in southern Manitoba with sightings in this instance in Winnipeg, Vogar, Marquette and the Lake Manitoba Narrows.
Is it migratory?
Unlike other grouse in Manitoba, the Willow Ptarmigan is partly migratory, with some older records of birds being found 800km south of the breeding range. In winter this species may move from forest edge habitats and open tundra into dense willow thickets near streams and rivers. It is thought that predator avoidance rather than food shortages explains these movements. Like other grouse species, Willow Ptarmigan shelter from freezing temperatures and strong winds in snow burrows.
Where can I see it?
The best place to see them is near the Town of Churchill. Good places to find Willow Ptarmigan include the road from the town to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the Twin Lakes road.
This circumpolar species remains widespread across its global range. Although hunted extensively, there is no evidence that this is having a negative population effect. Climate change may have a greater influence in the future, opening up inaccessible areas of northern Manitoba to mineral exploration, increasing pollution and altering habitats.
How can I help them?
Although often referred to as the 'tame grouse', Willow Ptarmigan are susceptible to recreational disturbance. It is therefore important to proceed with care when photographing this species. As with all northern wildlife, climate change will likely have major impacts on this species. Being well-informed on these issues is the first important step to helping our wildlife.
Did you know?
In addition to the white plumage and ability to create insulating snow burrows, another adaptation which helps this bird in the cold climate is the presence of insulating feathers on the legs and feet.