Animals -> Birds -> Upland Fowl -> Ptarmigan


Ptarmigan General

Ptarmigan General

Ptarmigan was, and continues to be, one of the most commonly eaten birds by Indigenous Peoples [24]. Caribou Inuit, however, are reported to have disliked ptarmigan; Iglulik Inuit, Copper Inuit and Inuvialuit are reported to have regarded ptarmigan only as emergency food [27].


Ptarmigan was eaten throughout the year, but was particularly important during the winter months when other game was scarce. Ptarmigan was one of the only land birds regularly eaten by Inuit. This bird helped to improve an otherwise meager subsistence diet throughout the winter until caribou hunting began in springtime [30, 31]. Cultures reported to have hunted ptarmigan in winter include the Kaska, Kutchin (Gwich’in), Dene, Eyak, Yupik, Inuit, Chipewyan of Stony Rapids, Ontario First Nations, Cree, Montagnais (Innu) [10, 24, 26, 32-37, 41-51]. The Waswanipi hunted ptarmigan in winter and intermittently in spring and fall [52], and cultures near Wood Buffalo National Park were known to hunt ptarmigan fall and winter [53, 54]. The Upper Tanana and Han ate ptarmigan throughout the year [28, 29]. Cultures reported to have hunted ptarmigan in summer include Tanaina, Inuit and Chipewyan [17, 41, 56]. Tanaina also hunted ptarmigan in fall [17] and Greenland Inuit hunted them spring through fall [26]. Kutchin (Gwich’in) of Peel River reportedly hunted ptarmigan year-round; they found the bird to be delicious at any time of the year [73].

Ptarmigan were shot with rifles, bows and arrows or crossbows; knocked down by throwing bolas or stones at passing flocks; and trapped with nets or snares usually set in branches, which was the most popular method.

Cultures reported to have used snares include the Mackenzie Delta Inuvialuit, Eyak and Yupik [26, 38, 44, 45]. Several types of snares were made. To make a tether-snare, Hare (Sahtu) women used willow branches to make circular fences with open gates and attached light-colored nooses. Because ptarmigan live in the willows in winter, the willow fence served as trap that could hold bait. Many birds were caught in this manner at Colville Lake [64]. Similarly, during the early winter migration, Kutchin built stick fences with picture wire at the openings. When the birds ventured through the openings in the fence, they would get trapped by the wires [43]. Yukon women cut down pine or spruce trees and set snares among the branches [65].

Loop snares were used by some cultures, including the Ahtna and Kutchin [17]. Yukon hunters snared ptarmigan with loops hung from poles [65]. The Tahltan made snares of twisted willow bark or caribou or moose sinew. These loops were set in a line in a patch of shrub willows. Women and children would chase flocks of ptarmigan towards the snares [60, 66]. Mistissini Cree also used stationary snares with loops hidden in a row of willow branches [10, 48-50].

Northern cultures including Mackenzie Delta Inuvialuit and Inupiat are reported to have used nets to trap ptarmigan. Hunters would chase ptarmigan flocks into nets. The birds were also lured into the nets by placing dead female birds nearby as decoys [38, 57, 67]. In Alaska, decoys were used during mating season. A hunter would surround a decoy with the net. He would then hide and imitate a male bird’s mating call. A male ptarmigan would fly towards the net to challenge the one who made the call, and here, the bird would become entangled in the mesh [67]. The Mistissini sometimes caught ptarmigan in gill nets. Lengths of nets were propped up with sticks. As the birds passed, a string was pulled and the net collapsed on top of the flock [49].

Ptarmigan was easily obtained by throwing stones or shooting arrows at the flocks [57]. During hunting trips, children would keep busy by shooting ptarmigan with arrows [58, 59]. A special ptarmigan bow was often used with arrows of a particular size [26]. The Tahltan hunted ptarmigan with blunt-headed arrows [60], and the Tanaina hunted ptarmigan with bolas and blunt arrows [17]. The Mistissini used bows and blunt arrows as well as large crossbows [10, 48-50].

Several cultures are reported to have used rifles. These include the Hare, Chipewyan and Hudson Bay and James Bay Cree. Inuit girls were reported to have balanced the rifle on a rock or on ice to shoot ptarmigan [55, 61-64].


Ptarmigan is reported to have been roasted, boiled, dried and frozen.

The Tahltan roasted and boiled ptarmigan. For boiling, the birds were placed in birch bark containers filled with water and red-hot stones [60, 66]. The people of Kitimat (Haisla) and the Upper Tanana also boiling ptarmigan [25, 28]. The Gitksan (Gitxsan) consumed the birds freshly cooked, half dried or fully dried. For drying and smoking, the ptarmigan was boned and opened, the intestines were removed, the feathers were burned off and the bodies were cleaned. The carcasses were hung or laid flat in the smoke house. The prepared birds were usually eaten immediately [1].

To roast ptarmigan in the Yukon, feathers were plucked or singed and the carcasses were gutted and mounted on a grill. Six ptarmigan could be placed evenly on the grill. A handle was used for turning the grill and exposing different sides of the birds to the fire. Ptarmigan was greatly enjoyed this way, and each person may have eaten a few birds in one meal [68].

The Hare would pluck the ptarmigan and cut off the wings as soon as the birds were killed and the small pin hairs were singed off over a fire. Once the birds were gutted, the meat was fried, roasted, boiled or made into soup. The heart and kidneys were often consumed [17, 64]. Cultures of Northern Canada and Alaska also relished the kidneys, as well as the eggs that were found inside the female ptarmigan [59].

The Chandalar Kutchin cooked ptarmigan and other birds without containers. The bird’s body cavity would be filled with water, and a hot rock was placed inside to cook the bird [46].

Inuit devoured the entrails while the bird was still warm from a kill. They reportedly preferred the entrails to the ptarmigan meat, but the raw flesh was also eaten [27, 69, 70]. In the North, dark meat was enjoyed by many [26, 57, 71]. Clyde Inuit are reported to have eaten the whole ptarmigan raw or boiled. Men would eat the meat, heart and bones, leaving the entrails, beak and feet [72]. The ptarmigan was highly valued for the leafy green matter found in its crop and stomach, which was a major source of vegetable matter for many Inuit [26, 57]. In the North, ptarmigan was often stored in permafrost pits for later use in winter [57].

In the bush, Chipewyan hunters roasted ptarmigan over a fire. Back at camp the birds were usually boiled [55].

Attawapiskat (Cree) left the organs attached when boiling ptarmigan. Boiling was preferred because a good broth could be eaten with the meal. Unlike some cultures, the Attawapiskat did not eat the windpipe, head or legs [9].

Immediately following a kill, Mistissini Cree hunters would remove the breast feathers. Upon returning to camp, the birds were plucked of their remaining feathers, the neck was opened to remove the esophagus and trachea, the feet and pinions were severed, and the body was opened to extract the entrails. Sometimes the trachea was left untouched. The blood was then smeared onto the body and the whole bird was roasted on a spit [50]. When the Mistissini boiled ptarmigan, the crop, breasts, wings, legs and side meat were removed. The sternum was broken, and the entrails were removed; all pieces were boiled. The liver, heart and gizzard were also eaten; sometimes these were washed first. To open and clean the gizzard, the Mistissini would use their fingers [50]. If Mistissini hunters obtained several ptarmigan, they would dry or freeze some of them after being cleaned and dressed. The bones and all other remains were given to dogs [50].


Ptarmigan eggs were traditionally eaten in the Yukon; however in later years, eggs were considered by some as “little babies” and were left where they are found [57, 68]. Ptarmigan eggs were sometimes sought by the Hare in spring. They were usually boiled [64]. Ptarmigan eggs were highly desired by Inuit (including those of Clyde) [72, 74]. After killing a female ptarmigan, Inuit would eat the eggs inside her with great relish [59]. The Shuswap believed that breaking ptarmigan eggs would bring rain [75].

Uses other than food

Some cultures used ptarmigan feathers for trading, cleaning dishes, cleaning hands, and as baby diapers [57]. Clyde Inuit would remove the skin to use as a rag or as a child’s toy [72].

Beliefs and taboos

The Hare held many taboos associated with the ptarmigan: Elders are reported to have said that burning a ptarmigan’s beak would bring the cold, and boiling the bird’s meat would cause the flocks to disappear [64]. Greenland Inuit tell stories of the ptarmigan to have once been human. Sometimes the ptarmigan was featured in Arctic dances. In one such dance, a mother ptarmigan was portrayed in her effort to distract an enemy away from her fledglings [57]. Yukon cultures tell a story of a woman who was abandoned and survived entirely on ptarmigan. She caught one bird by hand. And then, using its leg sinew for a snare, she continued catching ptarmigan, adding their sinew to her snares. It is said that ptarmigan tracks in the snow were an inspiration for the netting of the snowshoe [68].

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan is reported to have been hunted by Kutchin (Gwich’in), Inuvialuit, Inuit (including those from Labrador), Cree (Waswanipi, Mistissini, Hudson Bay and James Bay), Ontario First Nations, among others [74, 76-79]. The bird was available year-round for Peel River Kutchin and Nuvorugmiut (Inuvialuit) [73, 80]. In times of scarcity, Willow Ptarmigan helped sustain many cultures through winter [57]

Yukon hunters set nets of babiche and sinew among willows on mountainsides to catch Willow Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan were easily driven into the nets in winter when they tended to waddle more than fly [68]. The Kaska would snare willow ptarmigan in a similar manner, using a split spruce line attached to a willow stick that was stripped of bark. The Kaska were particularly fond of willow ptarmigan [42]. The Shuswap and Hare are reported to have shot willow ptarmigan when they encountered it [64, 81].

Inuit used guns, snares and nets to catch Willow Ptarmigan. Women set snares of braided deer sinew among the willows. Nets that stretched several hundred feet were also set on the snow: women and children would drive the ptarmigans toward the nets, thus trapping the birds [57, 74]. Decoys were also widely used by Inuit to catch Willow Ptarmigan. A hunter would prop up a dead female ptarmigan on a stick. He would then lay hiding nearby and imitate the ptarmigan’s call. As a male ptarmigan approached, the hunter was able to shoot it with an arrow [57]. Labrador Inuit used stationary snares or blunt arrows [17, 82].

In the North, the carcasses of willow ptarmigan were stored in permafrost pits with animal meat and fish for winter and times of scarcity [57]. Parts of the intestine of Willow Ptarmigan is reported to have been eaten by The Hudson Bay Cree [61] and the Mistissini Cree [50]. Willow ptarmigan eggs were also collected for food [57].

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan is reported to have been hunted by Kutchin (Gwich’in), Inupiat, Inuvialuit, Inuit (including those from Clyde River, Belcher Island and Labrador), among others [78, 79, 83]. It was available year-round for Nuvorugmiut (Inuvialuit) and Peel River Kutchin [73, 80]. Wainwright Inupiat obtained Rock Ptarmigan on land when encountered; hunters did not actively seek out the birds on the ice [83]. The bird was also hunted by Clyde Inuit March to December, but once the snow came, the white plumage made the flocks difficult to locate [72].

Yukon hunters caught Rock Ptarmigan by setting nets of babiche and sinew among willows on the sides of mountains. Hunters would easily herd the birds into the nets because ptarmigan waddle in winter rather than fly [68]. Rock Ptarmigan was prominent in the Inuit diet. Women hid snares of braided deer sinew among willows. They also drove the birds into nets that had been set on the snow [57]. Labrador Inuit trapped these birds with stationary snares or shot them with blunt arrows [17, 82]. Belcher Island Inuit reportedly ate the flesh of Rock Ptarmigan raw or cooked, but the intestines were usually consumed raw [84].

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan are rarely mentioned in ethnographic, possibly because they were not differentiated from other ptarmigan. However, this slightly smaller species was likely harvested and consumed by multiple cultures in British Columbia, southern Yukon, and southeastern Alaska.


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Ptarmigan General

Ptarmigan General

Ptarmigan, like grouse, their closest relatives, occupy cooler climates than most other upland fowl and are distinguished by having feathers covering their nostrils, and sometimes their legs and toes, and by having fleshy eyebrows, called combs that are especially obvious when red in breeding males. Ptarmigan (three species in the Lagopus genus) can be distinguished from grouse by their nearly all-white winter plumage and whitish underparts and legs in summer plumage. In North America, native ptarmigan species include the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), the Rock Ptarmigan (L. mutus), and the White-tailed Ptarmigan (L. leucurus) [1].

Willow Ptarmigan

The Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) is a widespread North American upland fowl, occurring throughout open tundra and mountainous slopes of Alaska, arctic and subarctic regions of Canada, as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland. In the winter, northernmost populations move long distances southward and some birds may reach the northern United States. Willow Ptarmigan are called lagopède des saules in French.

Willow Ptarmigan are the largest ptarmigan, weighing between 400 and 800 g, have a short tail, a short and stout dark brown bill, a red eyebrow, and feathered white legs and feet. In spring and summer, they have white wings and belly contrasting with their otherwise reddish-brown body colour. In winter, they turn completely white, except for their black tail and red eyebrows in males. Willow Ptarmigan can be distinguished from White-tailed Ptarmigan on the basis of their black tail feathers (most visible on the outside of the tail), and from Rock Ptarmigan on the basis of their larger size and heavier bill.

Willow Ptarmigan occupy a wide range in Arctic tundra and open boreal habitats, but generally prefer moist, well-vegetated areas with a dense cover of dwarf willow and birch. The same species occurs in Scandinavia and Russia where it is known as Willow Grouse and in United Kingdom where it is known as Red Grouse. Willow Ptarmigan feed mainly on buds, twigs, catkins, flowers, leaves, and seeds, but also on invertebrates and berries. Willow ptarmigan are monogamous and in late winter, males compete for territories visited by females. Nests are placed on the ground under some cover in a simple depression. Females lay 8-11 eggs in spring and incubate for 19-25 days. Willow Ptarmigan are unique in male-female pairs staying together from the start of the breeding season until chicks are independent and in males being regularly involved in parental care. Major predators of adults, chicks, and eggs include gulls, wolverines, weasels, wolves, foxes, lynx, and polar bear. Willow Ptarmigan are common to abundant throughout their North American range [2].

Rock Ptarmigan

The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is a widespread North American upland fowl, occurring in tundra and mountainous regions throughout Alaska and the entire Canadian Arctic, as far North as 75ºN. It is one of the only birds capable of surviving high-Arctic winters. Their French common name is lagopède alpin. Called Aqiggiq in Inuktitut, the Rock Ptarmigan is the official bird of Nunavut.

Rock Ptarmigan are slightly smaller than Willow Ptarmigan, weighing between 450 and 600 g, have a short tail, a black short and stout bill, a red eyebrow, and feathered white legs and feet. Unusually, Rock Ptarmigan undergo three seasonal molts. The first of these involves a rapid and dramatic change from immaculate white (except for their black tail and red eyebrows above black eye stripes in males) in winter to grayish-brown (except for white wings and belly) in spring and summer. The third moult occurs in autumn, when birds become greyer, just before turning white for winter. Rock Ptarmigan can be distinguished from White-tailed Ptarmigan on the basis of their black tail feathers ((most visible on the outside of the tail), and from Willow Ptarmigan on the basis of their smaller size, lighter bill. In spring and summer plumage, Rock Ptarmigan are more brownish than the rufous chest and head of Willow Ptarmigan, and in winter plumage, male Rock Ptarmigan have a black line extending from the eye to the bill that is not present in female Rock Ptarmigan or any Willow Ptarmigan .

Rock Ptarmigan occupy almost exclusively rocky tundra and alpine zones of mountains interspersed with moss, lichen, and sparse shrubby vegetation. They feed mainly on buds and shoots of dwarf vegetation. Most make small seasonal movements to lower altitudes or latitudes to find food in winter and return to higher altitudes or latitudes for the early spring breeding season. Rock Ptarmigan are largely monogamous and males defend territories. Females nest on the ground in a simple depression and lay 5-8 eggs incubated for 21-23 days. Males change from winter to summer plumage later than females, typically long after spring snows have melted, meaning that white territorial males are highly visible from long distances while females sitting on exposed nests are so well camouflaged that the are difficult to see from a few meters away. Falcons, owls, and foxes can take adults and chicks, while gulls, jaegers, arctic ground squirrels, weasels, and ravens take eggs. The North American population of Rock Ptarmigan remains fairly healthy, safeguarded by its northerly and remote distribution [3].

White-tailed Ptarmigan

The White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) has a relatively small range restricted to the Rocky Mountains of western North America. They occur from central Alaska and Yukon southwards to coastal British Columbia and Alberta. It is the only ptarmigan occurring south of the Canadian border and has been introduced in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah. Their French common name is lagopède à queue blanche.

White-tailed Ptarmigan are the smallest ptarmigan, weighing between 350 and 450 g, with a short white tail, a small black bill, red eyebrows, and white feathered legs and feet. In spring and summer, they have white wings, rump, and belly contrasting with their mottled brown finely barred of white head, neck, back, and breast, but in winter, they turn completely white, except for their red eyebrows. As their common name suggests, White-tailed Ptarmigan can be distinguished from Willow and Rock Ptarmigan in having a white rather than black tail.

White-tailed ptarmigan occupy higher altitudes than other ptarmigan and prefer relatively dry open habitat at or above tree-line in proximity of small streams lined with some dwarf shrubs. They feed mainly on the buds, shoots, and catkins of dwarf willows and alders. They move in loose flocks to lower elevation in winter and return to high elevation for the spring breeding season. White-tailed ptarmigan are mainly monogamous and are often seen in pairs. Females nest on the ground and lay 5-6 eggs incubated for 24-26 days. Adults and chicks can be predated upon by falcons, eagles, red foxes, coyotes, and weasels, while major egg predators include ravens, foxes, mountain lions, coyotes, and weasels. White-tailed ptarmigan are widespread and numerous throughout their range [4].


1.         Madge S: Pheasants, partridges, and grouse: a guide to the pheasants, partridges, quails, grouse, guineafowl, buttonquails and sandgrouse of the world. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2002.

2.         Hannon SJ, Eason PK, Martin K: Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1998.

3.         Montgomerie R, Holder K: Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 2008.

4.         Braun CE, Martin K, Robb LA: White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1993.


Distribution maps provided below, unless otherwise stated, were obtained from Birds of North America Online, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and all pictures provided below were obtained from Encyclopedia of Life
Willow Ptarmigan
Photographer: Bowman, Tim
Rock Ptarmigan
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Alpsdake
White-tailed Ptarmigan
© gailhampshire
Supplier: Flickr: EOL Images
Photographer: gailhampshire