Alaska State Bird - Willow Ptarmigan - Lagopus lagopus
State Bird of Alaska
The willow ptarmigan (pronounced tar-mi-gan) was designated as the official Alaska state bird in 1955, four years before Alaska was admitted to the Union.
APPEARANCE: The willow ptarmigan, a medium to large ground-dwelling bird, generally stands 14 to 17 inches high, has a wingspan ranging from 24 to 26 inches, and weighs between 15 and 29 ounces. Their plumage changes color from light brown in summer months to snow white in the winter. In addition to color-changing feathers, another distinctive feature of the willow ptarmigan are its feathered toes.
DIET: In winter months the willow ptarmigan eats moss, lichens, willow buds and twigs, birch, and seeds and berries when available. In summer their diet expands to vegetable matter and occasionally small insects, such as caterpillars and beetles.
NOTES: The willow ptarmigan is a bird in the grouse subfamily (Tetraoninae) of the pheasant family (Phasianidae). There are three kinds of ptarmigan, all of which can be found in the state of Alaska. The willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) and the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) can also found in northern Eurasia, Scandinavia, and Russia while the white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) can be found only in North America. The red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) is a subspecies of willow ptarmigan; it is endemic to Scotland and was first noted by Latham in 1787.
Kingdom: Animalia (animal)
Phylum: Chordata (chordates)
Class: Aves (birds)
Order: Galliformes (fowls, gallinaceous birds)
Family: Phasianidae (partridges, turkeys, grouse, pheasants, and quail)
Subfamily: Tetraoninae (grouse)
Genus: Lagopus (ptarmigans)
Species: L. lagopus (willow grouse, willow ptarmigan) (Linnaeus, 1758)
Subspecies: Lagopus lagopus alascensis Swarth, 1926
Binomial Name: Lagopus lagopus alascensis Swarth, 1926
Taxonomic Serial Number: 175809
LEGISLATIVE CONTEXT: The law designating the willow ptarmigan as the official Alaska state bird is Section 44.09.060 of the Alaska Statutes, specifically Title 44 (State Government), Chapter 09 (State Seal, Flag, and Emblems), Section 060 (State Bird). The legislation reads: "The Alaska Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus alascensis Swarth) is the official bird of the state." NOTE: The Lagopus lagopus alascensis is a subspecies of the Lagopus lagopus and was first noted by Swarth in 1926.
Detailed Description by John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
(Fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh)
LAGOPUS ALBUS, Gmel.
PLATE CCXCIX.--MALE, FEMALE, AND YOUNG.
Although I have not seen this beautiful bird within the limits of the United States, I feel assured that it exists in the State of Maine, as well as in the northern districts bordering on the great lakes. THEODORE LINCOLN, Esq., of Dennisville in Maine, shot seven one day, not many miles from that village; and the hunter who guided me to the breeding-grounds of the Canada Grouse assured me that he also knew where the "Red-necked Partridge" was to be found. The places which he described as frequented by them, seemed to bear as near a resemblance to those in which I found the species in Labrador and Newfoundland, as the difference of latitude and vegetation could admit. I have also seen several skins of individuals that were killed near Lake Michigan.
The Willow Grouse differs in its habits from the Canada Grouse in several remarkable circumstances. In the first place, neither myself nor any of my party ever found the former solitary or single. The males were always in the immediate vicinity of the nest while the females were sitting, and accompanied them and the young from the time the latter were hatched until they were full-grown; and whenever we met with them, we observed that the males and the females manifested the strongest attachment towards each other, as well as towards their young. In fact, so much was this the case, that when a covey happened to come in our way, 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. In the mean time, the little ones dispersed and made off through the deep moss and tangled creeping plants with great rapidity, squatting and keeping close to the ground, when it became extremely difficult to find them. This is the only American species of Grouse I am acquainted with that possesses these habits; in all others found in the United States, the male not only leaves the female as soon as incubation has commenced, but both fly from man and urge their young to do the same from their earliest age.
The Willow Ptarmigan, moreover, join their broods whenever an opportunity offers, and we found flocks of old and young, in which the latter were of very different sizes. This species rarely if ever alights on bushes or trees after being frilly grown, and appears to resort at all times by preference to the ground, living among the naked rocks of the open morasses.
The young birds do not acquire their full summer plumage before they are two years old. Many of these middle-aged birds, as I would call them, which our party procured early in the month of July, differed greatly from the older birds, which had their broods then quite small. They were much lighter in colour, their tails were shorter, and they weighed less, but afforded much better eating. Some of them had young, but their broods were much smaller in point of number, seldom exceeding four or five, while the old birds frequently had a dozen or more.
The flight of the Willow Grouse resembles that of the Red Grouse of Scotland, being regular, swift, and on occasion protracted to a very great distance. They have no whirring sound of their wings, even when put up by sudden surprise. Whenever we found a pair without young, they were extremely shy, and would fly from one hill to another often at a great distance. If pursued, they would be seen standing erect, and boldly watching our approach, until we got to the distance of a few hundred yards from them, when they would run from the naked rocks into the moss, and there squat so close, that unless one of the party happened to walk almost over them, they remained unseen, and could not be raised. When discovered and put up, they were easily shot, on account of the beautiful regularity of their flight. In rising from the ground, they utter a loud and quickly repeated chuck, which is continued for eight or ten yards.
Young birds shot in Newfoundland, on the 11th of August, weighed 6 1/4 ounces, and were fully fledged. Their primaries were of a sullied white, but their legs were not closely covered with hair-like feathers, as in the old birds. Although this species breeds in the districts inhabited by the Canada Grouse, it never enters the thickets to which the latter resorts, but always remains in the open grounds.
One day, while in search of young Wild Geese, in a large, oozy, and miry flat, covered with a floating bed of tangled herbage, we were much surprised at finding there several Willow Grouse. They were extremely shy, and flew from one part of the marsh to another. We procured with great difficulty two, which proved to be barren females.
To give you an idea of the difficulties we had occasionally to encounter, in our endeavours to procure such birds as breed in that country, it will suffice to say, that one of us was so mired in the flat just mentioned, that it was with extreme difficulty another of us succeeded in extricating him, to the great danger of being himself swamped, in which case we must all have perished, had no aid arrived. We were completely smeared with black mud, and so fatigued, that when we returned, we found it impossible to proceed more than a few yards before we were forced to sit down on the dangerous sward, which at every step shook for a considerable space around, so that we were obliged to keep at a distance from each other, and move many yards apart, constantly fearing that the least increase of weight would have burst the thin layer that supported us, and sent us into a depth from which we could not have been extricated. But once out of the bog, we were delighted with the success of our enterprise, and as we refreshed ourselves from our scanty stores, when we had reached the rocky shores of the sea, we laughed heartily at what had happened, although only a few hours before it was considered a most serious accident.
As I am speaking of fowling in Labrador, allow me to relate an incident connected with the Willow Grouse. Among our crew was a sailor, who was somewhat of a wag. He was a "man-of-war's-man," and had seen a good deal of service in our navy, an expert sailor, perhaps the best diver I have seen, always willing to work hard, and always full of fun. This sailor and another had the rowing of our gig on an excursion after Grouse and other wild birds. THOMAS LINCOLN and my son JOHN WOODHOUSE, managed the boat. The gig having landed on the main, the sailors, who had guns, went one way, and the young travellers another. They all returned, as was previously agreed upon, at the same hour, and produced the birds which they had procured. The sailors had none, and were laughed at. While rowing towards the Ripley, we heard the cries of birds as if in the air; the rowing ceased, but nothing could be seen, and we proceeded. Again the sounds of birds were distinctly heard, but again none could be seen, and what seemed strange was, that they were heard only at each pull of the oars. The young men taxed the tar with producing the noises, as they saw him as if employed in doing so with his mouth; however, the thing still remained a mystery. Sometime after we had got on board, the provision basket was called for, and was produced by Master BILL, who, grinning from ear to ear, drew out of it two fine old Grouse, and a whole covey of young ones, in all the exultation of one who had outwitted what he called his betters.
While at the harbour of Bras d'Or, I was told by persons who had resided in the country for many years, that, during the winter, when the snow covers the ground, and the Grouse are obliged to scratch through it, in order to get at the mosses and lichens, they are so abundant that a hundred or more can be shot in a day, and congregate in flocks of immense numbers, now and then mixed with the smaller species, called there the Rock Grouse, (Lagopus rupestris.) Their flesh is then salted for summer use. At that season they are of a pure white, except the tail, which retains its jetty blackness. I was further informed that their flesh is then dry, and not to be compared with what it is in summer, when I found it tender, and having an agreeable aromatic flavour.
The Willow Grouse breeds in Labrador about the beginning of June. The female conceals her nest under the creeping branches of the low firs. It consists of bits of dry twigs and mosses drawn into a form. The eggs are from five to fourteen, according to the age of the bird, and are marbled with irregular spots of reddish-brown, on a dull fawn-colour or rufous ground. They raise only one brood in the season.
The pair represented in the plate, with their young, were procured by my friend GEORGE SHATTUCK, Esq. of Boston, one of my party, who shot the first pair found by us in Labrador. They were in their full summer plumage. I think these birds, as well as the Canada Grouse, have what I call a continued moult, young feathers being found upon them at all seasons.
TETRAO (LAGOPUS) SALICETI, Willow Grouse, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor.
Amer.,vol. ii. p. 351.
WILLOW GROUSE, or LARGE PTARMIGAN, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 674.
WILLOW GROUSE, Tetrao saliceti, Aud. Orn. Bio., vol. ii. p. 528.
Male, 17, 26 1/2. Female, 16, 26.
In Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, during winter. Breeds plentifully in Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Fur Countries. Rocky Mountains.
Adult Male, in summer.
Bill short, robust; upper mandible with the dorsal outline curved, the edges overlapping, the tip declinate and rounded, the basal part with a deep sinus on each side; lower mandible convex, broad, with the tip rounded. Nostrils basal, roundish, concealed by the feathers. Head small, neck rather long, body bulky. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus feathered, as are the toes, excepting towards the end, where they are covered with small scales and three terminal scutella; hind toe extremely short, two lateral equal; claws slightly arched, depressed, broad, with thin edges, and rounded.
Plumage compact, the feathers generally rounded, those of the head and upper neck narrow and proportionally short. The legs and toes covered with hair-like feathers. Wings short, the primaries strong, narrow, tapering, curved; third longest, second and fourth little shorter. Tail short, even, or very slightly rounded, of fourteen broad feathers, and four narrower central ones, which are superior.
Bill black. Iris brown. Toes and claws dark brown, the edges of the latter yellowish-grey. Head and neck bright chestnut, the feathers on the back part of the latter and crown of the head barred with black, and tipped with whitish. The back, some of the wing-coverts, the nearer secondary quills, the four upper tail-feathers, the anterior part of the breast, and part of the sides under the wings, variegated with brownish-black, chestnut and white, the feathers being of the first colour in the middle, and transversely barred with the second towards the end, while the terminal margin is of the last. Most of the coverts, all the primaries, and the greater number of the secondaries, with the whole under surface of the wings, the middle of the breast, the abdomen, legs and feet, pure white, the shafts of the primaries are more or less brown, excepting towards the ends. The fourteen tail-feathers are brownish-black, with the tips white, as is the basal portion of the outer web of the outermost. The superciliary membranes are vermilion.
Length 17 inches, extent of wings 26 1/2; bill along the ridge 3/4; tarsus 1 1/2; middle toe with the nail 1 7/12; weight 1 1/4 lbs.
Adult Female, in summer.
In the female the superciliary membrane is much smaller, but of the same colour, as are the wings and tail. The head, neck, breast, abdomen, sides, as well as the upper parts, are variegated in a manner resembling the back of the male, but with the black spots larger, and the transverse bars of light brownish-red broader and less numerous; the lower surface much lighter.
Length 16 inches, extent of wings 25; weight 1 lb.
Young a few days old.
The young are covered with a dense elastic down, of a yellowish tint, variegated above with a few large streaks of dark brown, on a light brown ground; the top of the head with a longitudinal brown patch margined with black.
The young when fully fledged resemble the female.
Web version of John James Audubon's work. "The Birds of America"
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