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In defense of noble Alaska ptarmigan

Robert Masolini
Robert Massolini photo

Right now as I write this I'm looking out the window. It's nighttime and pitch dark. A winter storm out of the Gulf of Alaska is battering my house; the wind making the eaves shake and groan. I can't see outside, but I can hear the spruce and hemlock trees out there getting thrashed, branches being warped and pointing the direction of the blow. The whooshing sound of the woods getting blasted is loud, making me alert to the conditions. I'm glad to be inside hunkering down. I can picture my neighbors and friends during this hurricane force, mean bastard of a storm, sitting gratefully next to their woodstoves…hunkering.

Hanging out with pen and paper, this hunkering makes me think of ptarmigan, professional hunkerers. I love seeing these birds. They still make my heart skip a beat every time they seem to materialize out of nowhere. And when they nervously lose faith in their incredibly camouflaged, cryptic plumage, they start comically running away in a not so self-assured hustle. When they do this I always imagine them speaking in English like "duh…uh oh!" Its fun to snowboard through alder zones, flush them up and chase them a little bit. Or to hear an avalanche roaring down a distant mountainside, looking to see a frantic flock of ptarmigan flaring up out of it's way, to fly above the forefront of the gigantic, billowing powderblast in a high speed escape from violent clouds of snowy devastation, to go land on a quieter slope. And then they disappear again.

In the whole world there are three species of ptarmigan, only in the northern latitudes, and all live in Alaska. Willow ptarmigan, or lagopus lagopus in latin are about 13.5-17 inches long and common in shrubby areas in winter around sea level. They have a distinct voice that reminds me of a very small angry man yelling 'go go go you! Yeah you!' with some unintelligible snide mutters and clucks mixed in. Rock ptarmigan, lagopus muta, are 12.5-16 inches in length and prefer high and barren ground. White-tailed ptarmigan, lagopus leucura are the least common and are the smallest members of the grouse family in North America at 11-12 inches.

Alaskan chicken

All ptarmigan are galliformes, an order of birds to which chickens, turkeys, and pheasants belong. Ptarmigan turn bright white in fall to blend in with snow, and turn back to varying tinges of brown in spring. The seasonal feather change, or molt, is done three times a year. Day length and the amount of daylight reflecting through the eye to the pituitary (not pineal) gland triggers the molt as is timed to match the changing surrounding environment.

Ptarmigan excel in winter. Feathered legs and toes help for warmth, as well as feather covered eyelids, earflaps and nostrils to keep snow out. No adaptations help these birds slow metabolism to conserve energy in winter. They will be still for periods of time long enough to poop upwards of fifty times in in one spot, making a real heap. Food, various berries, buds, seeds and shoots are pecked up in short foraging sessions and stored in their crops, the thin membrane storage bag at the bottom of the throat. It is easy to tell what they have been eating by inspecting the undigested stuff in the lemon sized crop. Eggs are laid on the ground. Rock and willow ptarmigan usually lay 3-13 eggs in a clutch, and white-tailed about 2-8 a clutch. Chicks eat mainly insects for about the first three weeks of life until the digestive system develops to handle plant matter. Body mass and fat content is highest in winter, and predators of all sorts prey on high energy ptarmigan. Falcons and hawks dive and grab them off the ground or in a chase through the air. Mink, marten, and ermine will sneak up and take them. Wolverines use ptarmigan as an important food source, where these big weasel clan members will dig down and unbury them when they lie hidden under the snow surface for insulation.

Most birds of the world migrate with generally north/south or south/north movements. Ptarmigan are of a handful of mountain dwelling birds that do altitudinal migration, moving up and down in elevation as the seasons change. In warmer months, the alpine is preferred. When the snow dumps up high, ptarmigan trickle down closer to sea level. Rock ptarmigan especially like to fly in early spring breeding season up to steep patches of sun melted muskeg and tundra mountain sides in flocks of varying sizes to feed and chase each other. They really like to run hundreds of yards between these high exposed patches one by one and talk back and forth in their rattling clucks and croaks. White-tailed ptarmigan range as far south through the Rockies as northern New Mexico, with the Alaska Range being the northern barrier for them. As opposed to willow and rock ptarmigan, their voice is more high pitched and a fast chatter with shrieks. They are the only ptarmigan without black feathers bordering either side of the tail. I have seen only a few in my life, and they weren't in flocks.

Ptarmigan: A North Slope regular

I was on the tundra of Alaska's North slope for a few months last spring. If you look at an Alaska map, there is a large triangle shape of land at the northernmost part of the state pointing north. This is the Barrow Triangle. I arrived in late April. Even though there was 24 hours of daylight, it was completely frozen over with a lot of wind out of the north. The Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean on either side of the Triangle were an endless view of pack ice stacked high from pressure of currents and tides. Snowmachining around the tundra, I noticed quite a few willow ptarmigan. I didn't see much good feeding area for them at all. In mid-late May shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds started showing up in shocking numbers, many from the opposite hemisphere of the world. It looked almost like every bird on Earth showed up to the Triangle to nest on the vital tundra. As this avian influx of action was going on like a bird party of intensely noticeable magnetism, the ptarmigan left. I can throw around ideas like the next guy, but I really wanted to get to the bottom of this 'reverse migration' phenomenon. It was on my mind all the time; all the other birds showing up as far north as possible while the ptarmigan say 'see ya' and go south somewhere. I thought it obvious that to some degree it is altitudinal migration, a lot of them flying south to the edge of the Brooks Range mountains for some elevation, and to get away from the flat Triangle which largely floods with the spring thaw. My buddy Ernest Nageak lives in Barrow and works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A hunter and a local, Ernest is tuned in to the goings-on of the natural history of the tundra. He's a smart guy with a respectable comprehension backed with age-old Native assessments of the area's wildlife. The word of local knowledge is that the willow ptarmigan leave the northern tip of the state each year at roughly the same time as the 'summer visitors' arrive and migrate south towards the 'willow line'. About sixty miles south of Barrow this willow line is the northern boundary for shrubs and small bushes on the North Slope tundra. There are also bigger rivers here and the vegetation covered permafrost mounds, or pingos. The willow line has a little less wind than farther north, and as opposed to the more coastal plain of the Triangle, doesn't flood the land with as much water when the snow melts. The ptarmigan head for this boundary where spring sunshine (24 hours a day) and winds will scour snow off the slopes of the little pingos, uncovering the willows and seeds below- food.

Caribou also mostly leave the northern part of the Triangle in late May/ early June to avoid the flooded tundra. They too go south, and return back north slowly through the summer as the Triangle becomes drier. Lots of ptarmigan will stay around the willow line until fall. When the days turn more twilight and snow covers the lonely, sprawling windswept North Slope, numbers of willow ptarmigan fly back to the northern Triangle to literally track the caribou in an interesting arctic relationship. As the big mammals graze along, they kick and dig through the snow to get at the lichens on the tundra underneath. As they do this they expose forage for ptarmigan, which take advantage of the caribou's feeding habits: one animal unwittingly helping another species.

250 miles southeast of Barrow is the big cut gouged through the mountains of the Brooks Range, Anaktuvuk Pass, where the village of the same name lies. This name translates to 'place of many caribou droppings' in Inupiat. This natural bottleneck of a migration corridor is an important passage for many different species of birds and mammals going between the North Slope and Alaska's interior. Thousands of willow ptarmigan a day will fly north in spring and south in fall through Anaktuvuk Pass in a much more "normal" migration, totally different than the willow ptarmigan of the Barrow Triangle. Whether or not some of the birds do the 'reverse' thing one year and the 'normal' thing the next is unknown. A lot goes on in our big state. We have much to learn.

At times when it gets super cold in the winter, or brutal winds of snow are too intense, ptarmigan will allow themselves to settle down and let the snow immerse them completely while the worst of the storms go by. I'm sitting here writing, looking out the window into the blackness. The storm is still testing the strength of this house. The wet wind-driven slush flakes are nailing the windows and sound like so many little bullets hitting the glass. As I'm holed up here inside, I'm thinking about ptarmigans' instincts in this weather and a lesson learned from these birds: that when the forces of nature have you pinned down, one of the best traits an Alaskan can have is the ability to let the bad stuff pass you by, and hunker. When good weather comes around, we'll come out and make the best of those nice days like only we know how- we Alaskans.

Thank you to Ernest Nageak of Barrow U.S.F.W.S. for your valuable insight. Check out allaboutbirds.org and search rock ptarmigan, willow ptarmigan, and white-tailed ptarmigan for voice recordings of these three species.

This commentary originally appeared in The Cordova Times and is republished here with permission.