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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

White-tailed Ptarmigan -- Lagopus leucurus


RANGE: Resident from south-central Alaska, central Yukon, and southwestern Mackenzie south to southern Alaska, southern British Columbia, including Vancouver Island, and the Cascade Mountains of Washington, and along the Rocky Mountains from southwestern Alberta to northern New Mexico. Introduced into the high Sierra Nevada of California, Wallowa Mountains in Oregon, and the Uinta Mountains in Utah. Commonly migrates locally during winter to areas slightly below treeline.

STATUS: Locally common in alpine tundra.

HABITAT: Inhabits rocky tundra areas with sparse vegetation in high mountains. Breeds in territories adjacent to spruce-willow alpine timberline zone (krummholz) and also small windblown areas. Males tend to winter above tree line adjacent to breeding areas where wind prevents complete coverage of woody shrubs; females tend to winter in basins and drainages that are not as windblown and somewhat removed from tundra.

SPECIAL HABITAT REQUIREMENTS: Alpine tundra.

NEST: Nests on the ground in areas that become snowfree early in June and are somewhat protected from wind, such as under small shrubs or next to rocks larger than 6 inches. Females locate their nests near the fringe of a male's breeding territory, but more importantly, near brooding areas where vegetation is short and rocks 6 inches or larger cover more than 50 percent of the ground surface.

FOOD: During summer, primarily consumes seeds and leaves of smartweeds, sedges, clover, and willow; also takes various green leaves, flowers, and some insects. During winter in Colorado, consumes willow primarily, alder secondarily. In Alaska, consumes alder catkins primarily, willow and birch secondarily.

REFERENCES: Braun 1969; Braun in Farrand 1983a; Braun and Rogers 1971; Johnsgard 1973, 1983a; May and Braun 1972; Weeden 1967.


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