White-Tailed Ptarmigan in Rocky Mountain National Park

While there are many species of birds that either inhabit or pass through the park, there is none quite like the white-tailed ptarmigan which spends its days at the park's high elevations.

Although it is the smallest bird of the grouse family, it has no reason to feel inferior. The white-tailed ptarmigan is an incredibly hardy bird, spending the entire year in some of the harshest environments in Rocky Mountain National Park. In some ways it is like our own version of the penguin, though related only in its love for cold weather. Preferring to live above tree line in the alpine environment, ptarmigans face bitter winter temperatures and extreme winds few other creatures are able to survive. Even in the warmth of summer it gravitates to remaining snowfields.

Ptarmigans tend to shelter near krummholz and willows where they can forage for leaves, seeds, and insects. In the winter, they will often make their roost in snowbanks. As the seasons transition and the length of day changes, they slowly adapt their dress to blend in almost perfectly with the environment. During the summer they are often mistaken for rocks on the ground because of their speckled brown-and-black feathering, while in the winter they wear all white and disappear among the drifts. Unlike other birds, they usually don’t fly away when predators are near but remain still, hoping their camouflage will disguise them. This approach also conserves their energy, which is vital during the cold winter months. These birds have feathers over their feet to keep them warm and feathers over their nostrils to help heat up the air they breathe. They seem to be perfectly adapted to their harsh environment.

April 26, 2023

Wildlife Watching Tips:

Ptarmigans can be very difficult to spot as they change their feathers to blend in with their surrounding environment. Although they can be found anywhere in the tundra areas of the park, they are often found near tree line where they can hide among the bush-like trees that grow at this altitude. Be on the lookout for them while hiking up Flattop Mountain, Longs Peak, or any other mountain trail that passes through tree line and tundra. You’ll need a keen eye to notice them.