Ptarmigan

Lagopus mutus

34-36cm

Appearance

This is a robust game bird, similar shaped to the Red Grouse but not as large. Its seasonal plumage allows it camouflage all year round, and though the sexes are similar, they should be distinguishable. During summer, the male has marbled greyish and brown upperparts, white belly and wings; the white on his back decreases as the season draws to an end. The winter male is uniformly white, except for a dark eye patch, bill and tail. His dark parts become greyer in the autumn. A red wattle above the eye swells during breeding, and its redness fades by midsummer; the belly and legs remain white at all times. The female is browner than the male in summer, she is almost completely white in the winter (the bill and eye are black, but she lacks the male's dark eye patch), and in autumn she becomes darker. Juvenile birds resemble a summer female, predominately brown with a grey-brown tail. When flying, males and female show white wings.

Habitat

This bird lives in the highest mountains of the Scottish Highlands, usually above 1000m. It prefers environments with lichen and moss, and can be found amongst boulders and bare rock, particularly where snow remains for the longest. Elsewhere, Ptarmigan live in Arctic or Alpine conditions, though its altitudes decrease the further north it is.

Character

The Ptarmigan tends to form small flocks when not in the breeding season, and are usually in pairs when breeding. It roosts in hollows in the snow. They're difficult to see, but are more easily heard. If alarmed, these birds are less likely to fly, preferring to crouch and depend on their camouflage.

Food

Searching the snow with feathered feet, these birds have a diet of plant shoots, berries, leaves and seeds, including heather, bilberry and crowberry.

Breeding

Breeding begins in late April to early May. Nests are made in shallow holes scraped out by the birds then lined with vegetation; they're often dug in the protection of a bush or a boulder. Female lays 5-8 eggs and she incubates these for 21 days. When the young hatch, they're able to feed themselves and they depart the nest quickly; they are quick to fly (as early as 10 days) and are independent at 10-12 weeks.

Population

A resident bird, the Ptarmigan rarely goes too far from its breeding grounds. There's an estimated 10 000 pairs in Scotland; it is no longer found in previous locations in southern Scotland and the Western Isles.

Observation Tips

The nature of its habitat can make observation difficult, and despite not being particularly flighty, they can be difficult to locate. Perhaps the easiest place to spot them is in the Cairngorms.

Voice

Male utters an abrasive croak, a raspy ku-kurrr, and he also has a series of fast clicks. The female's call is a high-pitched cooing.
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