Perfect Winter Camouflage

January 29, 2007 by  
Filed under Features

The Ptarmigan is a type of grouse living in the far north, in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Siberia. In summer, its feathers are brown and mottled like the tundra it lives in. Like many other bird species, it uses brownish camouflage to hide from predators.

But the Ptarmigan spends its winters farther north than any other bird. Snows soon blanket its home – brown feathers would be too obvious against the white landscape. So the Ptarmigan molts into brilliant white feathers in winter. This makes the bird almost invisible in its snowy home. Fluffy white feathers even cover the Ptarmigan’s feet – keeping them warm and turning their feet into wide snowshoes.

The Ptarmigan is also unusual in having three different camouflages: Summer-Brown, Winter-White, and in spring, the Ptarmigan becomes a patchy half-brown, half-white. This springtime coat helps hide the Ptarmigan when the tundra is patchy with melting snow.

Even more incredible: the females molt into summer-brown sooner than the males. By late spring, the females are hiding on their nests, in the brown tundra. But the males are still defending their territory- some flashy white can help the males stand out. The Ptarmigan’s molts are perfectly coordinated with the northern seasons.

There are three species of Ptarmigan: the Willow, Rock, and White-tailed. Each has many subtle subspecies. For instance, the “Red Grouse” of Britain is actually a type of Willow Ptarmigan. Since it lives farther south, in regions with little snow, it does not need to turn white in the winter.

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