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Lagopus leucura (Richardson, 1831)
White-Tailed Ptarmigan
Family: Phasianidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman


© Mike Morellato     (Photo ID #95692)


Distribution of Lagopus leucura in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Breeding male
This species undergoes almost continual molt from spring through fall, and thus what is termed here as a ‘breeding plumage’ is merely the stage of molt that corresponds with the peak of the breeding season (May-June). Males in this plumage have buffy to greyish-buff upperparts (back, scapulars, rump, inner upperwing coverts) with fine, dark barring and vermiculations throughout. The wings (including most of the wing coverts) and tail are entirely white. The head, neck, upper breast, sides, and flanks are largely buffy or greyish-buff (throat, foreneck, breast, sides, and flanks usually with white background colour), with blackish and dark brown barring and mottling throughout (black usually forming bold, irregular splotches on the lower neck and breast); the remainder of the underparts (lower breast, belly, undertail coverts, feathered legs and feet) are white to pale grey. This briefly-held plumage is acquired gradually throughout the spring, and thus individuals observed during the April-May period are in a transitional plumage that is a patchwork of white and brown. These birds first begin to acquire dark-barred brown feathers on the head, neck, and upper breast, with feather acquisition then progressing onto the back, uppertail coverts, and finally the scapulars. A similar situation occurs following the peak of breeding activity, as males gradually acquire the white winter plumage between June and October, with some intermediate buffy-brown or cinnamon-buff feathers acquired for a brief period in mid-summer. These individuals first acquire white feathers on the belly, undertail coverts, and breast but retain finely vermiculated buffy-brown to grey-brown or olive-brown feathers on the upperparts, head, and neck throughout the late summer and early fall. The plumage appears greyer and duller in late summer and fall than in early summer (when it is buffier or slightly rufous-toned) due to feather wear and fading. The iris is dark and bill is blackish, and there are fleshy red combs above the eyes (particularly prominent at the height of breeding). The legs and feet are fully feathered with whitish feathers.

Breeding female
Like the male, the female undergoes almost continual molt between April and October/November. At the peak of the breeding season (May-June), the female is pale buffy or buffy-grey throughout with heavy dark brown and blackish barring on the head, neck, breast, sides, flanks, back, scapulars, and uppertail coverts. The wings and tail remain white throughout the summer, and the lower belly, undertail coverts, and feathered legs and feet are usually white or pale buff. Like males, birds in spring (April-May) gradually acquire the breeding plumage and generally appear as a patchwork of white and brown. Breeding-plumaged feathers are first acquired on the head, neck, and breast and subsequently on the upperparts (with the scapulars being the last feather tract replaced). Females also undergo a post-breeding molt (June-October) that is similar to the males, and are often indistinguishable from males in the late summer and early fall. Bare part colouration is similar to the male, but the red combs are less conspicuous.

Non-breeding adult
This ‘winter’ plumage is acquired in October or November and is held until ~April of the following spring. The plumage of both sexes is entirely white, although there is sometimes the suggestion of very thin red combs in the male, particularly in late winter prior to courtship.

This plumage is held briefly during the summer of the first year, with an all-white winter plumage gradually acquired throughout the late summer and fall. Birds in this plumage are cinnamon-rufous to greyish-buff on the upperparts (including the wings and tail) and greyish-brown on the underparts, head, and neck, with heavy grey-brown, dark brown, and black mottling and barring throughout. The outermost two primaries are white in all but the youngest juveniles. The wings and tail gradually become white throughout the late summer and fall, followed by the remainder of the plumage in the fall.

Total Length: 31-32 cm
Mass: 325-490 g

Source: Braun et al. (1993); Sibley (2000)



The White-tailed Ptarmigan is likely to be confused only with the other two ptarmigan species in B.C. It is the smallest of the three species, and can be reliable identified by its white tail (the tails of the other two species are black). The tail feathers are often hidden by the long uppertail coverts, however, which may necessitate attention to other plumage characteristics for accurate identification. The Willow Ptarmigan, which is found only in northern B.C. and along the Coast Mountains, is much larger and larger-billed than the White-tailed Ptarmigan and occurs at lower elevations (usually restricted to brushy areas at or below treeline). In early spring, males acquire a chestnut head, neck, and upper breast which contrasts sharply with the otherwise white plumage. Individuals in this plumage should be easily distinguished from White-tailed Ptarmigan. Later in the summer, the extensively chestnut or reddish-brown plumage of the male Willow Ptarmigan is similarly distinctive. Females are best distinguished from female White-tailed Ptarmigan by size and structural characteristics, as well as their noticeably richer rufous-buff plumage (extending onto the belly and undertail coverts). In winter, size, structure, and the black tail feathers should be sufficient to distinguish this species.

The somewhat smaller Rock Ptarmigan, which is still larger than the White-tailed Ptarmigan, occupies habitats that are intermediate in elevation between the other two species. Although it overlaps extensively with White-tailed Ptarmigan, it tends to avoid talus and rocky slopes in favor of mountain meadows and tundra. Males of all plumages have a dark line through the eye that immediately serves to distinguish them from White-tailed Ptarmigan; this feature is particularly prominent in winter plumage, as are the very large, bright red combs above the eyes. Breeding-plumaged males are much darker and browner on the head, neck, upper breast, and upperparts than male White-tailed Ptarmigan. Females are similar in structure to female White-tailed Ptarmigan, but are overall richer buff or rufous-buff in colouration (similar in tone to female Willow Ptarmigan). All plumages are immediately distinguished by the black tail feathers when these are visible.

Displaying males produce a variety of calls during the breeding season, including a rapid, clucking pik pik pik pik piKEEA or duk-duk-duk-DAAK-duk-duk (given on the ground), a low, hoarse pwirrr, and a loud, four-syllable ku-ku-KIII-KIIER (given in flight); some courtship calls are very loud and can be heard as far as 1.5 km away. Both sexes give various clucking notes throughout the year, and these calls are sometimes interspersed among the male’s courtship calls. Also gives a high-pitched chirp when alert.

Source: Braun et al. (1993); Sibley (2000); Madge and McGowan (2002)

Breeding Ecology

Courtship displays begin in the spring (April-May) and are associated with the arrival of a female onto the male’s territory. Several courtship displays have been described, including the ‘Courtship Bow’, ‘Courtship Strut’, and ‘Courtship Chase’. During the ‘Courtship Bow’, the male approaches the female slowly while bowing the head in a rhythmic pecking motion. During the ‘Courtship Strut’, the male struts back and forth in front of the female, with his tail fanned, his wings drooped with the wingtips dragging on the ground, and the combs flared. During the ‘Courtship Chase’, the male slowly approaches the female with his head held upright, his combs flared, his tail feathers and undertail coverts held erect, his breast feathers fluffed, and his wings drooped. As the female moves away, he runs in pursuit of her while uttering a variety of clucking and cackling calls. Once the pair bond has been established, the male and female accompany each other almost continually prior to copulation (‘Mate Guarding’). A variety of loud, aggressive calls are given by both sexes (although more by the male) during this period in defense of the territory and mate. Pair bonds are retained for up to 3 years.

The female alone constructs the nest, which consists of little more than a shallow scrape on the ground (13-15 cm wide and 3-4 cm deep) that is lined with dried vegetation, moss, needles, and a few body feathers. The nest is typically situated in open, often rocky terrain or in brushy willow or krummholz vegetation and is usually at least partially concealed by overhead vegetation.

A single clutch of (3) 4-7 (9) eggs are laid between mid-May and early July (variable, depending on latitude and local snow conditions) and is incubated by the female alone for 22-26 days before hatching. The smooth, slightly glossy eggs are pale buff to pinkish-buff with sparse but regular reddish-brown or dark brown speckling. Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-May and late July.

The young are downy and fully precocial and leave the nest within 6-12 hours of hatching. The chicks are mottled with black, brown, buff, and cinnamon on the upperparts and are greyish-white to pale greyish-brown on the underparts (often with olive-brown mottling on the sides and breast). The crown and nape are reddish-brown with black mottling, the forehead is pale buff with black mottling, the throat and sides of the face are whitish or greyish-white, and there is a black streak behind the eye. The bill is black. The chicks follow closely behind the parents when young and are regularly brooded by the female, particularly during inclement weather. The young are able to feed themselves within one day of hatching and are not fed by the female (although she does direct them to sources of food). The young are able to fly weakly at ~10 days of age, and remain together as a family group throughout the first winter (dispersing in the following spring). Family groups that include young chicks have been observed in B.C. between late June and mid-September.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Braun et al. (1993); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Madge and McGowan (2002)
Foraging Ecology

This species forages exclusively on the ground, where it picks food from the surface of the soil and rocks or browses on low shrubs and herbaceous vegetation. It consumes the buds, leaves, stems, seeds, fruits, catkins, and flowers of a wide variety of shrubs, grasses, and forbs, and also consumes insects during the breeding season. It shows a particular fondness for willow, and the winter diet is composed largely of willow buds; it also consumes the buds of birch and alder in areas where willow is absent. These buds are often available, even at the highest elevations, in windswept areas where the shrubby vegetation beneath the snow is exposed throughout the winter. Foraging birds occur singly or in pairs during the breeding season, but aggregate into small to medium-sized flocks of up to 35 individuals during the winter. When not foraging, winter flocks sometimes roost in burrows beneath the snow.

Source: Braun et al. (1993); Madge and McGowan (2002)


The White-tailed Ptarmigan occurs almost exclusively in rocky alpine tundra, alpine rockslides, talus, krummholz vegetation, and at the edges of glaciers and snowfields. It sometimes descends to lower elevations when it can be found in subalpine parkland or, rarely, below the treeline in high elevation coniferous forests, montane meadows, clearcuts, burns, or along lakeshores (especially in winter). It generally occupies elevations that are above those that are used by the other two species of ptarmigan, and is particularly fond of rocky or stony substrates. It is primarily found at elevations of 1,200-2,700 m in British Columbia (lower along the coast and in northern B.C. where alpine habitats occur at lower elevations), sometimes descending as low as 500-900 m during the winter.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Braun et al. (1993)


Global Range

Occurs only in northwestern North America, from Alaska and the Yukon south through B.C. and western Alberta to Washington and along the Rocky Mountains to Colorado and northern New Mexico. Introduced populations are also found in Oregon, eastern California, and Utah.
BC Distribution

Fairly common at high elevations throughout the mainland of B.C., from the Coast and Cascade Mountains east to the Rocky Mountains. It is uncommon at high elevations on Vancouver Island, but is absent from all other coastal islands (including the Queen Charlotte Islands). It is also absent from areas large areas of the province that lack alpine habitats, such as much of the central interior and the northeastern lowlands east of the Rocky Mountains (Peace River area, Fort Nelson lowlands, etc.). Although it occurs year-round within its range, some individuals wander to lower elevations during the winter and can occasionally be found in areas that they would not normally inhabit (exceptionally as low as sea level along the coast).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b)


Population and Conservation Status

This species is reasonably common and secure throughout British Columbia, although its association with alpine habitats may render it susceptible to the effects of global warming. The endemic Vancouver Island subspecies (L.l.saxatilis) is relatively uncommon (although apparently secure) within its restricted range and is placed on the provincial blue-list (subspecies of special concern) by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre.


Five subspecies of White-tailed Ptarmigan have been described, but much of the variation described is clinal and several of these subspecies may be better included within other, more distinctive subspecies. Two subspecies are found in B.C.

The subspecies in British Columbia are as follows:

Lagopus leucura leucura
This subspecies ranges throughout the mainland portion of the species’ range in British Columbia. It is slightly smaller but longer-winged than L.l.saxatilis, but it is apparently not appreciably different in plumage from that subspecies.

Lagopus leucura saxatilis Cowan
This subspecies is endemic to Vancouver Island. It averages marginally larger-bodied but shorter-winged than other subspecies, but it is unclear whether the subspecies differs substantially in plumage from the more widespread L.l.leucura. Some authors (e.g., Pyle [2008]) do not recognize L.l.saxatilis and instead include Vancouver Island populations within L.l.leucura.

Source: Braun et al. (1993); Pyle (2008)

Status Information

Scientific NameOrigin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
Lagopus leucuraNativeS5?YellowNot Listed
Lagopus leucura saxatilisNativeS3S4BlueNot Listed

BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links