White-tailed Ptarmigan are found above the timberline in alpine tundra habitats in western North America. In Washington, they can be found in the Cascade Range from the U.S./Canada border in the north to Mt. Adams in the south and east along the Canadian border in the higher elevations of the Pasayten. They are more common farther north.
White-tailed Ptarmigan depend on alpine habitats that have few grasses and some shrubs, such as willows. They can be found feeding alone or in small flocks. Their diet consists mostly of vegetation: primarily twigs, buds, leaves, flowers, and seeds. They favor willow, birch, alder, sedges, and crowberry.
White-tailed Ptarmigan are most likely to be observed in the summer, when most birders look for them. As a result, winter reports are few, and would be of great value to help agency biologists learn locations of critical wintering habitat.
Their calls can sound like a high-pitched “creaking” sound, or soft, low clucks, and in the summer are often the best means of detecting them. Otherwise, they can be easy to miss when hiking, as they tend to remain silent and motionless when people walk past. However, if a female with a brood feels threatened, she may feign an injury by running with her wings dragging, to distract the threat and draw it away from the chicks.
If you see a White-tailed Ptarmigan while you are enjoying the outdoors, please take a photo! Even cell phone photos are useful. If you can take a georeferenced photo with GPS coordinates, even better! If you cannot take photos with location coordinates, please record the location where you found the bird/s as specifically as possible. Please also record the date, time, and number of birds seen. WDFW has placed colored bands on some birds’ legs to aid in their identification (see Photo 2). If you see a ptarmigan with leg bands, please also record the colors of the bands and the order in which they are stacked. (Hint – photos are an easy way to remember this information!)
Photos, color band recoveries, and other details should be reported in eBird checklists submitted to eBird Northwest, or can also be reported directly to WDFW at firstname.lastname@example.org. If the eBird checklist covers a large area, such as a several mile hike, please include the specific location with GPS coordinates in the comments section for the species sighting.
WDFW thanks you for the valuable information you provide when you submit to eBird Northwest. The information you are collecting is essential to the conservation of this species in Washington, where their future may be precarious due to the effects of climate change. Happy trails!