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Ptarmigan: Year-round high country residents

Janice Kurbjun
Summit Daily News
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kim Fenske Special to the Summit Daily News This ptarmigan was photographed on Mount Bierstadt on Oct. 5 and is well on its way to its all-white winter plumage.
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Ptarmigan impress Kim Fenske.

An avid hiker who’s often on his own, Fenske often stumbles across the birds, which live high in the mountains – mostly above 12,000 feet and sometimes as high as 13,000 or 13,5000 feet above sea level.

And that’s what strikes Fenske: The bird’s toughness.



“I’m impressed with the ptarmigan – as I am with other animals that live above treeline – because they are able to adapt to a very severe climate,” he said. He listed other animals he comes across in his high mountain travels, like the pika, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and yellow-bellied marmots. The wildlife is often Fenske’s motivation during his hikes.

“I’m very close to animals. I have a good relationship with them,” he said. “I’ve never met a bear I didn’t like. Not the same with people.”



Fenske, who lives at Copper Mountain, said he was once atop Mount Harvard when a snowstorm with heavy winds blew into the summit area. He hunkered down by a small rock ledge and found himself tucked away next to a covey, or group, of ptarmigan.

“When it lightened up, the birds moved out so I knew it was time to move out, too,” Fenske said.

He said it’s tough to spot ptarmigan, because they blend in with their rocky alpine environment.

The birds he captured on film not long ago were going through their fall color morph on Mount Bierstadt. They change from a mottled brown color to white in winter.

The bird, which is roughly a foot long, moults seasonally to camouflage itself. In winter, it’s pure white except for a black beak and eyes.

“The thing is, you almost step on them,” Fenske said. “I stumble on them in the tundra, or boulders, or scree. They blend in with the background.”

The species of ptarmigan native to the western United States is the white-tailed ptarmigan, so named because it’s the only one with no black on the tail. They make soft, low hoots and low clucking noises. It also is unique because it remains in the high alpine zone in winter, rather than migrating. Feathers around its nostrils helps warm the air before it reaches the body.

It’s rare for a hiker to spot the birds, Fenske said, because they are so difficult to spot, and they tend not to fly away when discovered. Instead, they walk on legs heavily insulated with feathers.

However, Fenske has managed to spot a few in his travels on the aforementioned peaks as well as Quandary Peak and Notch Mountain, to name a few. When he does see them, he stops to marvel at their eating habits: They nibble tundra flowers, leaves and seeds. The plants are small up there, so feed is limited.

Because they stick to the alpine environment year-round, the U.S. Geological Survey has selected the bird as a benchmark species for studying effects of climate change.

“They adapted to cool, alpine environments that are expected to undergo unusually rapid climate change,” the Fort Collins USGS Science Center’s documents read. Scientists there compared samples collected in the late 1930s, the late 1960s and the late 2000s, using various methods to determine whether white-tailed ptarmigan on Mount Evans, near Idaho Springs, have experienced recent environmental changes resulting in shifts in genetic diversity, gene frequency and nutritional ecology.

So far, findings seem to show that populations haven’t changed over time, but feather counts have decreased significantly. Nutritional value seems to have changed because the atmosphere is depositing nutrients that change what’s out there.


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