Common Name
WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN

Scientific Name
LAGOPUS LEUCURA

View Utah Distribution Map

Photo by Unknown Photographer
Photo Courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

The white-tailed ptarmigan, Lagopus leucura, is also known as the snow quail.

Adults are 12 to 13 inches long, with males only slightly larger than females. Average weight is 12 to 15 ounces. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest of the ptarmigans and is smaller than the ruffed grouse. In winter, this bird is pure white except for a black beak and eyes. In summer, it has a mottled and barred brown head, breast, and back with white wings, belly, and tail remaining. White-tailed ptarmigan are so named because they are the only ptarmigan with no black on the tail. The tail is white during all seasons of the year. In fall, during the hunting season, both sexes are mostly pale cinnamon-rufous above with fine spotting and vermiculations to brownish black. A few breast feathers are usually white and the belly, tail, and wings are white. It makes soft, low hoots and low clucking noises.

The white-tailed ptarmigan is an alpine species, a permanent resident of the high mountains, above timber line, during most of the year. It occupies open-country and flies a great deal more than forest grouse, but still prefers running to flying. In Utah, it is generally found above 10,000 feet altitude. It ranges from Alaska south to New Mexico.

Males return from their timberline wintering areas to establish territories on spruce-willow timberline breeding grounds in April. Females arrive in early May and pairs are formed. Four to eight buff, faintly spotted eggs are laid in a hollow on the ground lined with a small amount of grass, leaves, and feathers. Males remain with the females until the eggs are hatched. The eggs hatch after an incubation period of 23 days.

Winter food is primarily willow buds. Alpine areas lacking willow cannot support ptarmigan for long. In spring, the leaves and flowers of several forbs are eaten but willow remains an important part of the diet. In summer, broods may also feed on insects and bulbuls of knotweed.

There is no conclusive proof that white-tailed ptarmigan were native to Utah. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in cooperation with Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, introduced them into the Uinta Mountains in 1976. They have been sighted from Holiday Park in the Weber drainage on the west, to Greendale and Flaming Gorge on the east. A legal hunt has been allowed since 1982 by permit only. Unlike many other species of native gallinaceous birds, ptarmigan, primarily because of their remote habitat, have been little affected by man's activity. Sheep grazing in alpine areas seems to be detrimental because willow patches essential for winter survival are thinned and destroyed.

Sources:

  • Text modified from: Rawley, E. V., W. J. Bailey, D. L. Mitchell, J. Roberson, and J. Leatham. 1996. Utah upland game. Publication number 63-12. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City.

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