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Animal Fact File: Ptarmigan

Name: Ptarmigan

Scientific Name: Lagopus muta

Description: The ptarmigan is a plump game bird that is camouflaged seasonally, with a short beak. It is found on the highlands of Scotland. Oher names for it are the rock ptarmigan.

Male rock ptarmigan in Scotland

Species: Ptarmigans are part of the grouse family, from the lagopus genus that is a subfamily known as ptarmigans. There are three living species in the genus living in cold upland areas.

Colouring: The seasonal camouflaging of ptarmigans means its feathers moult from white during winter, though keeping a black tail to brown flecked with grey in spring and summer. They also have a distinctive red comb above their eyes, though it is more prominent in males.

Length: 34-36cm

Wingspan: 54-60cm

Habitat: Ptarmigans can be found on rocky mountains and tundra in Northern Europe, mountain regions like the Alps and Pyrenees and subarctic area of North America. They are only found in the mountains and upland of Scotland in the UK and may move to lower altitudes in winter and heavy snowfall.

Diet: The gamebird has a diet of shoots, leaves, berries, seeds and insects are eaten by the developing young, though food depends on the conditions of their habitat.

Breeding: There are 2000 to 15,000 breeding pairs in the UK, and males usually mate with one hen, producing one brood a year, of around six or seven eggs in June. Males will show aggression to each other through their combs. Nests are built of sparse tundra, lined with feathers, leaves and grass.

Lifespan: Ptarmigan have a lifespan of two to four years in the wild, though early death from cold, predators or shooters can reduce it to just a few months.

Flight Speed: 60 mph

Other facts:

  • Ptarmigans are the only birds found in Britain that turn white during the winter months, similar to Arctic hares.
  • Ptarmigans live together in flocks for protection, separated by sexes, apart from the breeding season.
  • The ptarmigan is the official bird of the Nunavut territory in Canada and provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • ‘Ptarmigan’ is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word ‘tàrmachan’ which means croaker. Male ptarmigan have a croaking mating call.
  • The shooting season for ptarmigan occurs between 12th August and 10th December, and it is only occasionally shot in small numbers.
  • Ptarmigans have feathered feet and legs, which help protect them from the cold and also act as snowshoes.
  • The ptarmigans found in Scotland are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world, and will sometimes retain grey feathers in winter, in response to the patchy snow cover in Scotland’s mountains.

You might be lucky to see a ptarmigan on a hike in the Scottish Highlands – though their camouflage makes it difficult! You can find out about other game birds and animals in our fact files and enjoy British wildlife when out in the countryside wearing your best country clothing.