Appreciating ptarmigan, from the field to the plate.
[By E. Donnall Thomas Jr]
Several years ago, friends and I took a week-long float trip into the wilderness, targeting caribou with our bows. After several days without releasing any arrows, we were getting hungry. Weight limitations on the flight to the river’s headwaters had limited us to rice, noodles, and freeze-dried meals—none of which sustain long days of hiking beneath the North’s all but endless late-summer sun. The river had yielded fish to supplement our staples, but one can eat only so many grayling and char. A dead caribou would have solved our problem, but we had been unable to locate a bull willing to let us stalk within range of our longbows. As I glassed my way down yet another tundra ridge, I fantasized about something more substantial than mac-and-cheese over the campfire.
Then a rich, reedy cluck stopped me in my tracks, and I studied the ankle-high ground cover. I recognized the sound as a willow ptarmigan, but where was the bird?
Ptarmigan, with their seasonal changes in appearance, are year-round masters of camouflage, from the pristine white winter plumage that makes them disappear against snow to the complex variegated pattern of their feathers that allows them to hide in plain sight during summer. Of the latter, biologist Abbot Thayer, an expert on natural camouflage, wrote in 1909:
Supremely beautiful and potent is the grass pattern of [the ptarmigan] in summer plumage. The pattern is achieved by light brown marginal bands, with a few small internal spots, on the dark feathers of the upper parts, the predominance of light and dark being gradually reversed as the lower breast is approached.
No wonder I couldn’t see the bird, even though it was sitting in cover little higher than lawn grass.
Had I been carrying my 20-gauge, I simply would have forged ahead, flushed the bird, and taken it on the wing, but shooting at flying targets with a bow is generally just a good way to lose arrows. Patience is a great virtue in the field, and I simply held still and waited until the bird’s curiosity overcame its caution.
Soon a head rose above the cover, allowing my eye to discern the whole outline of the ptarmigan. My arrow flew true, and the sound of fluttering wings coaxed other birds into view. By the time I continued down the ridge, a real dinner rested in my backpack. As is so often the case in Alaska, willow ptarmigan fed my camp when the intended quarry did not.
Three species of ptarmigan inhabit Alaska: the rock, white-tailed, and willow. The first prefers steep, rocky habitat, and the second occupies a limited range in the southern Alaska alpine. If you see a ptarmigan on the tundra in the Interior, it is likely a willow. The three are difficult to distinguish in their winter plumage, but during summer and early fall, the male willow ptarmigan’s body is a distinctively reddish auburn color. In fact, it belongs to the same species as the famous red grouse of the British Isles.
Willow ptarmigan are widely distributed around Alaska. I have hunted them from the North Slope to Bristol Bay to the Kenai Peninsula, at all times of year save for the early-summer nesting period, when seasons are closed in most units. (Always consult a current version of Alaska’s regulations.) These birds offer something for hunters of all levels of skill and experience in the field.
Hunting willow ptarmigan can be a no-frills affair aimed at little more than putting meat in the pot, as I demonstrated with my bow during that caribou hunt. I suspect that more kids in Alaska began their hunting careers with a .22 and a flock of cooperative ptarmigan than in any other way. On the other hand, some of my most memorable ptarmigan hunts have come with my pointing dogs and wary late-season birds that offered wing shooting tough enough to challenge even the most experienced upland hunter. Come August, an easy hunt for willows can be conducted from almost any road in Alaska’s Interior, but a midwinter ptarmigan expedition can involve a lot of flying, snowshoes, and bone-chilling conditions.
We owe these various opportunities to a single species, and appreciation for the bird has a long history. In 1955, Alaska’s schoolchildren voted to make the willow ptarmigan the state bird. They couldn’t have made a better choice.
Don Thomas has hunted all three species of ptarmigan, from the Arctic to the Panhandle. He enjoys doing so most when he is with his bird dogs.