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Breeding season turns ptarmigan into kooky showstoppers — and a hunter into an admirer

A male willow ptarmigan struts his stuff during breeding season. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

A male willow ptarmigan nestled into snow at the base of willow shrub, his eyes shut and his red eye comb lowered. When he opened his eye to glance at the human in his presence, it was with half-cocked interest — the setters do this when they are napping nearby and hear the refrigerator open. The lab cannot manage such lucid restraint and is usually nose-first into the treat bin. But setters seem to indicate that they will not get up for less than a sure thing.

The only thing that got the male ptarmigan off a morning roost was the sound of another male calling nearby.

The mostly white bird had begun to change color with the ground. Only its neck had a scruffy dark plumage, a kind of hipster beard. It sprang to and planted two substantial snowshoe-looking feet on the surface of the snow. The red eye combs flared up and his neck stretched out. “Where is this other male that has appeared on the scene?” he seemed to ask.

Across the willow thicket, a single all-white female crouched in her roosting place while the two males barked at each other in sonorous ribbits and cackles. Steve caught the movement of another ptarmigan running across the highway at top speed. Why does the ptarmigan cross the road? Perhaps to answer the call of another territorial male or to fight for the honor of a lady ptarmigan.

The males did not engage in any fights. Instead, they walked in line with puffed chests and outstretched necks. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the ptarmigan repertoire — they never seem as animated and full of expression as in the breeding season. Here, they take little notice of people and make all sorts of funny faces and gestures.

Spring is the time of year when my way of life shifts, although not as dramatically as the ptarmigan’s. We both put away our winter outfit, including snowshoes — I store mine, and they shed the extra feathers that expand their sturdy footprint in winter. Instead of changing with the ground, I rearrange my closet so that the lighter, brighter clothes are in the front and the heavy layers are in the back.

After the upland bird season ends in Southcentral Alaska on March 31, the switch happens fast. Instead of posting photos of English setters on point, I share photos of various ptarmigan and their changing looks. It catches me off-guard when someone comments that “they are also good to eat,” because that’s not what’s on my mind anymore.

Not to say that ptarmigan meat isn’t some of the best available. They feed on wild plants and shrubs that do not contain pesticides or herbicides. There are no additives, and ptarmigan, in particular, have the highest protein level — 24.8 percent — of any game meat in Alaska.

A willow ptarmigan stands guard with a female. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

As Steve and I get ready to begin volunteer ptarmigan surveys, we both tend to forget about hunting as we watch the show — and it’s some show. Besides being entertaining, surveying provides some firsthand knowledge of how the birds are doing in a particular area and if there is a population healthy enough to hunt in the fall.

Whether hunting a specific species or not, every encounter with wildlife gives a day in the outdoors extra meaning. Unlike with bigger animals, there’s little expectation of being attacked by a game bird. However, a territorial male ptarmigan in the breeding season may whack you on the side of the head as part of a response to the call of another male. The attack is more due to a high level of distraction and is nothing personal. And usually you can hear the flight song — a kind of “yippee kay-yay” minus the yippee — as the scruffy-looking bird coasts in from a neighboring haunt.

Although it makes sense to those of us who enjoy watching wildlife and also hunt, it is no easy task to reconcile the heart of the hunter who may hunt for food on one hunt, for livelihood on another, and sometimes for the thousand-and-one other joys that go into a way of life. These smaller aspects cannot be brushed aside to fit one restrictive description.

One hunter may always think of ptarmigan as food, and when he comments on my wildlife photo as if it is my dinner plate, he may be just as confused as a nonhunter as to why I am noting what appear to be personality traits in individual birds if just weeks prior I pursued them as game meat.

But many conversations about hunting break down depending on hunter motivation. The existing categories for hunting — subsistence, commercial and sport — may work well for legal purposes, but they do little to describe a person’s reason for hunting. And, the limited definitions create ethical and cultural silos.

I love the story of two moose hunters, who after years of hunting together found themselves watching a valley filled with bull moose while they drank coffee. They were not immune to the beauty of it and had enough meat put away for the year. They contemplated what was different about that one day, and there is plenty of room in conversations about hunting for contemplation beyond what is “most correct.”

One of my favorite quotes about the gifts of wildlife is from Henry Beston’s book “The Outermost House": “In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Having spent hours amounting to months watching and admiring ptarmigan, most often I am not thinking of eating them. But I do hunt them with the dogs during the season. I do not take this responsibility lightly, and there have been many times I’ve wondered if I can continue to shoot birds.

The lesson may take me a lifetime to figure out, but there is no doubt in my mind that by spending any amount of time with ptarmigan in the high country, you begin to love these kooky birds. You value them more than you do a serving of meat that you know nothing about. Instead, the awareness makes it so maybe you eat a little less meat, waste a little less and appreciate a lot more.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid hunter.

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