Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Also known as: Rock ptarmigan
Synonyms: Lagopus mutus
GenusLagopus (1)
SizeWingspan: 54-60 cm (3)
Length: 31 - 35 cm (2)
Weight400-600 g (3)

The ptarmigan is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Green List (low conservation concern) (3).

Subspecies: Lagopus muta welchi and Lagopus muta rupestris (4).

The Scottish race of the ptarmigan is found only in Scotland, and is the only bird in Britain to turn white during winter (5). This gamebird has a rounded body, a small head and feathered feet that act as snow-shoes, allowing them to walk on soft snow (6). During summer, both sexes become greyish-brown, and females have more coarsely barred plumage with an overall yellowish hue (2). They blend in with lichen-covered rocks (7). In winter they turn totally white except for the short, black tail (2). Males have a blackish patch between the eye and the bill at all times of the year; they also develop a bright red wattle over the eye in summer (7). Ptarmigans produce a range of snoring or belch-like sounds and a characteristic ‘arr orr ka-karrr’ call (2).

Main Scottish strongholds for this species are in the Cairngorms, the north-western Highlands and the Mounth from Drumochter to Lochnagar. A few also occur in the Hebrides (5). Elsewhere, the ptarmigan has a wide global range; it is found in alpine and arctic areas of Russia, Scandinavia, Finland, Greenland and Canada (6).

The ptarmigan is possibly Britain’s hardiest bird, living on high mountainsides in rocky terrain with very little vegetation (6) (2). In winter, they occasionally move down to lower altitudes, especially after heavy snow fall, when they can be seen in high moorlands (6).

Ptarmigans feed on berries, shoots, leaves and seeds (7). When the ground is covered in snow they seek out areas where the wind has cleared the ground (5). During autumn, male birds become territorial, and engage in song flights, producing a belching croak. Hens pair with males at this time, but they tend to live in flocks through the autumn and early winter as well as when there has been a snow fall (5). Roosting occurs on the ground in flocks during winter, and if it has snowed, individuals huddle in a depression scraped in the snow (5).

Nesting also takes place on the ground, typically next to a large rock for shelter. Females incubate 7-10 eggs for around 21 days, and the chicks can leave the nest after just one day. The chicks feed on invertebrates and reach independence after 10 to 12 weeks (6).

Although this species is not threatened at present, ski lifts have caused local declines in numbers, as a result of predation on the eggs by crows attracted by rubbish generated by visitors, and by adult birds flying into ski-lift wires (5).

Conservation action has not been targeted at this common species.

For more on British birds see the RSPB website:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. RSPB A-Z of Birds: Ptarmigan (February 2004):
  3. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  4. Species 2000 and ITIS Catalogue of Life (April, 2011)
  5. Lack. P. (1986) The Atlas of wintering birds in Britain and Ireland. T & A D Poyser Ltd, London.
  6. Animal Diversity Web (February 2004):$narrative.html
  7. Holden, P. & Sharrock, J.T.R. (2002) The RSPB Guide to British Birds. Pan Macmillan, London.