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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

White-tailed Ptarmigan - Lagopus leucura

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status
PIF: 3


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The White-tailed Ptarmigan is a grouse of alpine (above treeline) habitats. It is the smallest grouse in North America (total length 30 to 31 cm, weight 295 to 440 grams), and the only species of grouse with white tail feathers. It possesses cryptic plumage that changes annually from white in winter to grayish-brown in summer. The sexes are similar in body size, shape, and winter plumage.

Breeding season males have a conspicuous necklace of coarsely barred brown and black breast feathers, while female plumage is predominantly brown and black with yellowish barring. Male plumage is generally more brown and gray than in the female. Males possess scarlet eye combs that are especially conspicuous during the breeding season; females have less conspicuous and smaller salmon-colored eye combs. In winter, in addition to the completely white plumage, the legs are heavily feathered to the ends of the toes, creating a snowshoe effect for walking on snow (Choate 1960, Braun et al. 1993).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
White-tailed Ptarmigan can be differentiated from all other grouse (including other ptarmigan) by their small body size and distinctive white tail feathers. Dusky Grouse often appear at or above treeline in the mountains of western North America, but lack the white tail.

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 120

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Movements tend to be elevational, from higher breeding grounds to lower wintering grounds, although some birds do not migrate. Distances moved are 0.2 to 22.7 km (in Colorado), with females moving farther than males (Braun et al. 1993). Females may also move up to 30+ km between potential breeding territories early in the breeding season (Martin et al. 2000). In Glacier National Park, birds moved an unspecified distance off of the breeding grounds onto adjacent tundra and valley bottoms by mid-October, and reappeared on the breeding grounds by June (Choate 1963).

Habitats occupied in Montana are similar in structure and composition to other locations in the species' range. These include alpine locations with a wide variety of plant habitats from dry, rocky, windswept areas to perpetually wet and mossy streamside areas; level or gently sloping sites are most favored. Moist vegetation (in recently snow-covered or stream-fed areas) and rocks are present in all areas heavily used by ptarmigan in summer, and in Glacier National Park it is often associated with net-veined willow (Salix nivalis), heath (Phyllodoce sp. and Cassiope sp.), and mosses. They do not occur during summer in forest or shrubby vegetation over 50 cm tall, although limited data from autumn and winter indicate ptarmigan sometimes occupy patches of krummholz (stunted and wind-deformed) trees (Choate 1963; Scott 1982). Nests are built in alpine terrain, in rocky areas or sparsely vegetated, grassy slopes. High fidelity to breeding territories in successive years tends to result in young adult birds searching for vacant territories in the natal area.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
In Glacier National Park, males, females and young ate similar plant parts - new shoots, flowers, seeds and fruits (Choate 1963). Their winter diet includes alder catkins, willow buds and twigs (the primary winter food in Colorado is willow buds); also buds and needles of spruces, pines, and firs. Spring and summer diet includes leaves, buds, and flowers of herbaceous plants, willow buds, berries, seeds, and insects (Choate 1963, Braun et al. 1993).

Chicks leave the brood after 8 to 11 weeks. The density of birds was 2.7 per 100 acres. About one-third of territorial males did not get a mate. The average adult mortality was 29%, chick mortality was 35 to 44% by the time of dispersal (Choate 1963).

Reproductive Characteristics
In Glacier National Park nests are found close to rocks, water, and a good food source; the site is chosen by the female. Populations in the Park appear to be genetically monogamous as well as socially monogamous, with a low incidence of extra-pair paternity (Benson 2002). Clutch size varies from 3 to 9 eggs, averaging about 5 eggs. Most clutches are produced in late June and early July. Renesting is infrequent, with a week delay between attempts, and the clutch size of second nests is smaller than in first attempts. Average annual productivity in Glacier National Park is about 56% (Wright and Conaway 1950, Edwards 1957, Choate 1963, Braun et al. 1993). Generally this species first breeds at 2 to 3 years of age.

No management activity appears necessary at this time. Populations of White-tailed Ptarmigan are largely in protected or remote areas (Choate 1963). No hunting season currently exists and survey and census estimates for most local populations are not available. No change in hunting status is warranted unless adequate field surveys are conducted. Livestock grazing in White-tailed Ptarmigan habitat could have a detrimental effect on the availability of summer and winter foods and should be avoided (Braun et al. 1993).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Benson, D. P. 2002. Low extra-pair paternity in White-tailed Ptarmigan. Condor 104:192-197.
    • Choate, T. S. 1963. Habitat and population dynamics of White-tailed Ptarmigan in Montana. Journal of Wildlife Management 27:684-699.
    • Choate, T.S. 1960. Notes on the morphology of white-tailed ptarmigan in Glacier National Park, Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 20:27-33.
    • Edwards, J. G. 1957. The ptarmigan of Glacier National Park. Audubon Magazine 59:252-255.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Martin, K., P. B. Stacey, and C. E. Braun. 2000. Recruitment, dispersal, and demographic rescue in spatially-structured white-tailed ptarmigan populations. Condor 102:503-516.
    • Scott, D.M. 1982. Distribution and habitat use of white-tailed ptarmigan in Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 41: 57-66.
    • Wright, P. L. and C. H. Conaway. 1950. White-tailed ptarmigan in the Mission Mountains, Montana. Condor 52:238.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists Union. 1983. Checklist of North American birds, 6th Edition. 877 PP.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Braun, C. E. and G. E. Rogers. 1971. The white-tailed ptarmigan in Colorado. Colorado Div. Game, Fish, and Parks Tech. Publ. 27. 80 pp.
    • Braun, C.E. 1993. White-tailed ptarmigan habitat investigations in northeast Oregon. Oregon Birds 19:72-73.
    • Braun, C.E., K. Martin, and L.A. Robb. 1993. White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura<\i>). Species Account Number 068. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Choate, T. S. 1963. Ecology and population dynamics of White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus) in Glacier Park, Montana. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Montana, Missoula.
    • Choate, T.S. 1960. Observations on the reproductive activities of white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus) in Glacier Park, Montana. M.S. thesis. University of Montana, Missoula. 120 pp.
    • Chrest, H.  1971.  White-tailed Ptarmigan. Pages 180-183 in Game management in Montana (T. W. Mussehl and F. W. Howell, Eds.).  Montana Fish and Game Commission, Helena.
    • Clarke, J. A., and R. E. Johnson. 1992. The influence of spring snow depth on White-tailed Ptarmigan breeding success in the Sierra Nevada. Condor 94:622-627.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Ellsworth, D. L., R. L. Honeycut, and N. J. Silvy. 1995. Phylogenetic relationships among North American grouse inferred from restriction endonuclease analysis of mitochondrial DNA. Condor 97:492-502.
    • Frederick, G. P., and R. J. Gutierrez. 1992. Habitat use and population characteristics of the white-tailed ptarmigan in the Sierra Nevada, California. Condor 94:889-902.
    • Giesen, K. M., and C. E. Braun. 1992. Winter home range and habitat characteristics of white-tailed ptarmigan in Colorado. Wilson Bull. 104:263-272.
    • Hand, R. L. 1969. A distributional checklist of the birds of western Montana. Unpublished. Available at Mansfield Library, University of Montana, Missoula.
    • Harrison, C.J.O. 1978. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Collins, Cleveland.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar’s Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Scott, M.D. 1984. A White-tailed Ptarmigan with black rectrices. The Condor 86(1): 94-95.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Wright, P.L. 1996. Status of rare birds in Montana, with comments on known hybrids. Northwestern Naturalist 77(3):57-85.
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Citation for data on this website:
White-tailed Ptarmigan — Lagopus leucura.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from