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Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)

willow ptarmigan


  • Willow ptarmigans are about 40 centimetres (16 inches) long.


  • In the summer, males are easily distinguished from the females by their reddish-brown heads, backs and breasts.
  • In winter both sexes are entirely white, except for their black tails, eyes and bills. Legs and toes are completely feathered.
  • The only breeding population of willow ptarmigans found in Alberta occurs in the mountains of northern Jasper National Park and Willmore Wilderness Park. Here, the birds spend the summer in the alpine zone or just below timberline. In winter they move to lower valleys.
  • Another population of willow ptarmigans visits Alberta only in the winter. These birds breed on the Arctic tundra and migrate south to spend the winter in northernmost Alberta.
Natural History


  • Winter diet includes the buds and twigs of willows, birch and alders.
  • In the summer, the young feed on insects and plants, while adults eat leaves, berries and seeds, but only a few insects.
Reproduction and Growth

Breeding Behaviour

  • Upon arrival on the breeding ground, a male establishes a territory from which he excludes all other males.
  • He displays plumage and makes a variety of boom and hoot sounds.
  • His mate stays within the territory and incubates 7 to 10 yellow-brown eggs in a nest hidden under a bush.
  • Eggs hatch in about 22 days and the young remain with the hen, feeding on insects and plants.
  • As fall approaches, willow ptarmigan flock together in preparation for migration to wintering areas.
Conservation and Management


The willow ptarmigan is classified as Secure in the General Status of Alberta Wild Species report. See:

Current management


Specific season information is provided in the current Alberta Guide to Hunting Regulations. To view the guide online or to order a printed copy, visit the My Wild Alberta website at:

Similar Species
  • White-tailed ptarmigan
    • The black tail of willow ptarmigans distinguishes them from white-tailed ptarmigan.
    • In summer, willow ptarmigans have more white on their wings than white-tailed ptarmigans.


Page Information

Posted: Apr 8, 2009