Ptarmigan, the popular name of the gallinaceous birds of the grouse family embraced in the genus lagopus (Briss.), which differ from the ordinary grouse in having the legs feathered to the claws, giving somewhat the appearance of a hare's foot (whence the generic name, Gr. , a hare, and , foot), in the truncated tail about two thirds as long as the wings and of 16 to 18 feathers, in most of the species becoming white in winter, and in the nasal groove being densely clothed with feathers; the family characters have been given under Grouse. There are six or eight species described, inhabiting the northern and snow-covered regions of both hemispheres, being one of the few genera characteristic of the arctic fauna; they are as much at home in snow as are the web-footed birds in water, and their plumed feet enable them to run over its surface without sinking. They live in families during most of the year, and are monogamous; the females incubate, but the males assist in rearing and feeding the young; the males have a loud harsh cry, and the females cackle like a hen. They are rapid fliers, without making a whirring noise, and swift runners; they feed upon berries, buds, mosses and lichens, and even insects; their flesh is good, and their pursuit affords an exciting sport; they are very shy, but when started are easily shot on account of their regular flight. The summer plumage is varied with brown, black, and gray, most of the wing remaining white; in the males the mottling is finer and the colors brighter.
It is very difficult to ascertain the exact number of species, from the rarity of specimens in summer plumage, and the absence of accurate determination of sex. - There are three well ascertained species in America. The white ptarmigan or willow grouse (L. albus, Aud.) is about 15 1/2 in. long and 24 1/2 in. in alar extent; the bill is black, very stout and convex, and broad at tip; the general plumage in summer is rufous or orange chestnut on the head and neck; feathers of back black, closely barred with yellowish brown and chestnut; most of wings and lower parts white; tail brownish black; in winter white, with black tail; no black stripes through the eye. It occurs in the northern parts of America, and is common in eastern Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Northwest territories, and in rare instances in the northern United States; it is found in open rocky grounds and among dwarf willows and birches. In winter they scratch in the snow down to the mosses and lichens on which they feed, collecting often in considerable flocks. In winter the flesh is dry, but is tender and has an agreeable aromatic flavor in summer.
They breed in Labrador about the beginning of June, placing the nest under the creeping branches of low firs; the eggs are from 6 to 14, of a fawn color or rufous ground with irregular spots of reddish brown; only one brood is raised in a season. The rock ptarmigan (L. rupes-tris, Leach) is 14 1/2 in. long; the bill is slender, rather compressed at tip; in summer the feathers of the back are black banded with yellowish brown and tipped with white; in winter white, with the tail black (the four middle feathers white), and the male with a black bar from the bill through the eyes. It occurs in arctic America, rarely coming further south than lat. 63° N. in the interior, but to 58° on Hudson bay, and in the Rocky mountains, according to Richardson, to 55°; the same species is said to occur in the northern parts of the eastern hemisphere; the eggs are pale reddish brown, with darker spots, and are 1 5/8 by 1 1/8 in. The white-tailed ptarmigan (L. leucu-rus, Swains.) has a slender bill, the plumage in summer blackish brown barred with brownish yellow, and in winter entirely white; it is 13 in. long and 21 in alar extent; it is found in the N. W. portions of America, and to the south along the Rocky mountains to lat. 39°.
Willow Grouse (Lagopus albus).
European Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) - winter plumage.
The common European ptarmigan (L. mutus, Leach) is about 15 in. long; the bill is black, short, and robust; the summer plumage is ashy brown mottled with darker spots and barred with orange yellow and dark brown on the sides of the neck and back, and the tail, with the exception of the two middle feathers, grayish white with a narrow terminal white band. It is fond of lofty and northern regions, going as far as Greenland and coming down to the highlands of Scotland; when pursued, like the other species, it is apt to dive under the soft snow; it sometimes does this for protection from the cold, and in damp weather is sometimes imprisoned and destroyed under the frozen surface of the snow; the ruffed grouse has the same habit. A species much resembling this, if not identical with it, occurs in America, in the neighborhood of Baffin bay, and has been described by Audubon as L. Americanus. - The Scotch ptarmigan or moorcock (Z. Scoticus, Steph.) seems peculiar to Great Britain, and is abundant in the hilly districts of Scotland; the general color is chestnut brown, with black spots on the back and undulating black lines below; the winter plumage is the same.
It is highly esteemed as game; where not much pursued it is not very shy, but its plumage is so like the surrounding dark moss and heaths, that it can hardly be discovered without the aid of a pointer; it feeds upon heath tops and mountain berries.