The Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan

The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is a bird belonging to the Tetraonidae family, which inhabits the Arctic and subarctic regions of Eurasia and North America, as well as some isolated mountainous areas such as the Alps, the Pyrenees, Scotland, and Japan.

In Italy, the rock ptarmigan is found in the Alpine arc, especially in the regions of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, particularly in the Dolomites, where it finds its ideal habitat above the tree line, between 1800 and 2800 meters in altitude.
The white ptarmigan is one of the marvelous specimens of the alpine fauna in our country, thanks to its unmistakable perfect camouflage. This bird prefers to inhabit high altitudes, living beyond 1800 meters, and nesting up to 2800 meters.

Description of the rock ptarmigan

It is a medium-sized bird, reaching a length of up to 40 cm and weighing around 500 grams. It has a short and robust beak, short feathered legs, and a black tail with outer white feathers. The most distinctive feature of the rock ptarmigan is its ability to change the color of its plumage according to the seasons, allowing it to better blend in with the surrounding environment. In winter, when the ground is covered with snow, its plumage is pure white, except for the tail and a black band between the eye and the beak, which is only present in males.

In summer, on the other hand, the plumage becomes gray or brown, with various shades depending on the sex and subspecies. Males have a speckled black chest and upper body, while females have a more varied plumage, with streaks and spots of red, yellow, and black.

Rock Ptarmigan’s call

The rock ptarmigan produces guttural sounds, especially during the breeding season. The call and song, a raucous “kroo rr kkkk,” are unmistakable. The rock ptarmigan’s vocalizations are most commonly heard during April, May, and June, particularly during the early hours of daylight.

Behavior of the rock ptarmigan

The rock ptarmigan is a sedentary and territorial bird that forms small families or territorial groups. It primarily feeds on buds, leaves, flowers, seeds, and berries of alpine plants, but also consumes insects, worms, and snails. In winter, when food is scarcer, the ptarmigan digs tunnels under the snow to reach hidden plants or feeds on conifer needles and lichens.

The white ptarmigan is a monogamous bird that nests between May and June in small ground hollows, under rocks, or among bushes. The female lays 6 to 12 eggs, which she incubates for about three weeks, while the male guards the territory and defends the brood from predators. The chicks are precocial, meaning they are capable of following the mother and feeding themselves shortly after hatching. They are covered with a brown or gray down, with dark spots and streaks, providing them with camouflage against the ground. After about two months, the young birds become independent and develop adult plumage.

Vulnerable species

Once considered a well-conserved species, the rock ptarmigan is now endangered in Italy. The Red List of Threatened Species categorizes it as a “Vulnerable” species.

The rock ptarmigan is a species protected by the European Union’s Birds Directive, which prohibits hunting and disturbance of this bird. However, the rock ptarmigan is threatened by various factors, including the loss and fragmentation of its habitat due to global warming, tourist development, and human activities.

Furthermore, the rock ptarmigan must contend with competition from other introduced species, such as the pheasant or the red-legged partridge, and face predation from wild animals like foxes, hawks, imperial crows, or domestic animals such as dogs and cats.

Rock Ptarmigan.

To preserve the rock ptarmigan and its ecosystem, it is crucial to protect natural areas, including the National Park of the Belluno Dolomites, the Natural Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites, the Natural Park Fanes-Sennes-Braies, the Natural Park Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino, the Natural Park Adamello-Brenta, and other regional and provincial parks where the rock ptarmigan can find its ideal habitat and reproduce safely.

Additionally, it is important to raise awareness among the local population and tourists about respecting this alpine bird, which represents the natural and cultural heritage of the Dolomites.

The Rock Ptarmigan

Scientific classification

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformers
Family: Phasianidae
Subfamily: Tetraoninae
Genus: Lagopus
Species: L. Mutas

Curio and legends

  • The rock ptarmigan is considered a symbol of purity, fidelity, and wisdom, thanks to its pristine plumage, monogamous behavior, and ability to adapt to the seasons.
  • In Greek mythology, the rock ptarmigan was associated with the goddess Artemis, the protector of hunting and wild nature. According to a legend, the goddess transformed into a rock ptarmigan to escape the advances of Zeus, and since then, this bird has become her sacred animal.
  • In Celtic tradition, the rock ptarmigan was seen as a messenger between the human and spiritual worlds, as well as a bearer of good luck and prosperity. It was believed that if a rock ptarmigan landed on the roof of a house, it signified that the inhabitants would have a happy and wealthy life.
  • In popular culture, the rock ptarmigan is featured in a famous English Christmas carol titled “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The song lists twelve gifts that a lover gives to his beloved over the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany. The first gift is indeed a rock ptarmigan in a pear tree (“a partridge in a pear tree”).