Where’s Willow?

How many birds do you see in this picture?  If you were a gyrfalcon you’d know right away.

These are willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), a non-migratory grouse that lives in the open tundra and moorland of Scotland, Scandanavia, Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

Willow ptarmigan are masters of disguise.  In summer they are brown and speckled like the vegetation they eat and hide in.  In winter they molt into white plumage to match the snow, and between the seasons they’re brown and white like patchy snow and dirt.  Willow ptarmigan have to be well camouflaged because so many predators eat them including foxes, wolves, owls, peregrines and gyrfalcons.

How did willow ptarmigans get their name? 

“Willow” comes from what they eat in winter: the twigs and buds of willows and alders.

“Ptarmigan” comes from the Gaelic word “tarmachan” which means to grumble or croak and describes the sound these birds make.   Tarmachan has no “P” but in the late 17th century somebody put a P at the front of the word to make it look Greek and scientific.  By the early 19th century the P stuck and became the accepted spelling of the word.

Did you find three birds in this picture?  If so, you probably followed their tracks.  Ptarmigan know their tracks are a dead giveaway so they sometimes fly directly to a hiding place and burrow into the snow.  Then it’s really hard to find them and you’ll certainly be wondering, “Where’s Willow?”

(photo by Ansgar Walk from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original where you can also see wing marks in the snow.)

4 thoughts on “Where’s Willow?

  1. Speaking of predators, there seems to be a growing number of hawks and foxes these days. In fact this morning, I was shocked to see a fox in the woods behind our house. Maybe that is the reason I haven’t seen as many squirrels around. Has anybody else noticed that there seems to be more predators around?

  2. I think they are moving in closer to people because they are losing their natural habitats and they are more used to people now and that is where the food is. It is the way the world is now I fear, everybody losing their rightful space and we just have to go along to get along like them. We just have to be a little more careful about who is wild and well and wild and ill. It is sort of sad but we just keep building and drilling and putting more roads in etc.
    Happy New YEar!!!!

  3. Cool, I missed the third ptarmigan (upper right in the photo) — guess I should have followed the tracks!

    I remember when I first ran across the name “ptarmigan” as a child, and didn’t know how to pronounce it. Somehow I mixed it up with the Partridge in the Pear Tree, and to this day I want to call that bird a “Partridge-Man!”

    Funny the stuff you remember like that. When I was little, I’d hear the song “Up on the Housetop” — and I didn’t get it. “Up on the housetop, reindeer pause….” I finally exclaimed to my mom, “But reindeer don’t have PAWS — reindeer have HOOVES!” I still imagine “reindeer paws” when I hear it 🙂

  4. Thinking back, I believe I surmised that the “Partridge-Man” was the male partridge! I knew that other birds had male & female names (rooster & hen, Tom turkey, peacock & peahen, etc.) So I figured the partridge (in the pear tree) was the female & the male was a partridge-man.

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