All the states have state birds. Over time, we’ll blog about most of them. Just at random, we selected Alaska’s for our first entry in the series. It is the Willow Ptarmigan. It’s Latin name, derived from Greek — go figure — is Lagopus lagopus which means “hairy foot.” It is a small grouse, closely related to the Red Grouse of Europe. Ranging from Alaska to Labrador and parts of northern Canada, its hairy feet help it walk on snow.
Legend has it that they fly into snow banks in winter leaving no trail for predators to follow. Actually, they dig themselves into snow banks and spend nights and periods of bad weather in the snow in order to stay warm. In winter, the birds are almost completely white and, during the rest of the year, adapt feather colors similar to the flora. They have at least three separate molts a year in order to maintain their disguise. Unless flushed, they are difficult to discern.
The females are known for cryptic behavior which makes it more difficult for observers to assign meaning to their conduct. The females apparently are attracted to males with large combs, who display themselves vigorously and who have large territories. Females appear excited and interested in the male display battles which occur prior to selecting mates. The females will also chase neighboring females whether they are mated to other males or not. Females also engage in more daily preening behavior although the reasons for this are unknown.
Most are monogamous, assuming their selected mate survives from one breeding season to the next. If both members of a pair survive, 83–86% will mate again. Both male and female juveniles are fertile and begin their own broods early in life.
The males, alone among grouse species, stay with the female after eggs are laid and participate in protecting the couple’s new youngsters until the first autumn of life, by which time the young can fend for themselves. Males have been known to attack grizzly bears, distracting the bear to give time for chicks to disperse and hide. None are known to have attacked moose or wolves. They will attack humans. John Jay Audubon noted one such attack by both males and females:
. . . the parents would fly directly towards us with so much boldness, that some were actually killed on the wing with the rods of our guns, as they flew about in the agonies of rage and despair, with all their feathers raised and ruffled.
They have a cornucopia of predators. Hawks, eagles, falcons, gulls and owls will kill them or eat their eggs. Many mammalian species which live in Alaska also prey on them. Humans hunt them with guns and wolverines, wolves, foxes, lynx and polar bears hunt them with claws and teeth. All of those will eat their eggs as will jaegers, magpies, crows, ravens, and weasels. Even the arctic ground squirrel gets into the act, eating eggs and chicks.
In short Willow Ptarmigans are beset with enemies, which is why they have so many young (5-10 per year) and why they are fertile at such a young age.
The male’s song is a loud “go-back go-back”.