Ptarmigans are plump gamebirds that are renowned for their hardiness. In the UK, they are only found in the Highlands of Scotland – arguably one of our harshest habitats. 

Ptarmigans live in the mountains, and can survive quite happily at altitudes of up to 4,000 feet! To deal with the conditions in this part of the country ptarmigans have a range of fascinating adaptations, which are perhaps most evident come winter. Here are five interesting facts we thought you would enjoy about these birds.

Ptarmigans have feathered feet

Ptarmigans have highly modified, thickly feathered feet which act as little snowshoes, meaning these birds can walk atop even the softest snow. Their legs are also feathered which helps to protect them from the cold. 

They’re surprisingly good diggers

In severe weather, ptarmigans deploy an interesting skill to avoid being hit by the worst of the winter storms. Using their feet, they will dig down into the existing snow to create themselves a snug little ‘snow hole’ to shelter in (like in the photo above). These will often take the form of a simple shallow depression in the snow for the bird to hunker down in. However they can also be a bit more elaborate, ending up like a mini-cave that the ptarmigan will sleep in over night to stay clear of the biting winds. 

Ptarmigans are masters of camouflage

Ptarmigans are well practiced wallflowers, blending seamlessly into their surroundings. And it’s all thanks to their highly adapted plumage. In summer, their feathers are a sort of mottled grey colour, allowing them to disappear among the rocks and boulders strewn across the landscape. However, as this doesn’t suit them so well in winter, the bird’s feathers will turn white at this time of year so they are camouflaged against the snow.  Ptarmigans are actually the only British bird to grow completely white winter plumage in this way. Arctic hares have a similar adaptation, where their fur will change from brown to white towards the end of the year. 

They moult regularly

To maintain their natural camouflage ptarmigans moult their feathers three times a year – a phenomenon which is only seen in a few other species. They move from the white feathers in winter to brown in summer and grey in autumn.

Scottish ptarmigans are just that... Scottish

The ptarmigans we have here in Scotland (Lagopus muta millaisi) are endemic, meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world. They often exhibit variable patterning in their feathers, for example retaining some grey feathers among their white winter plumage. This is thought to have developed in response to Scotland’s sometimes patchy snow cover, so they can be camouflaged against both the snow and exposed mountainsides. 

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