State Bird of Alaska – A Northern Wonder Thriving in the Arctic!

The state bird of Alaska - Willow Ptarmigan

When it comes to abundant wildlife & natural diversity, Alaska has always been a name of mystery to me.

As the home to over 450 bird species, this state has intrigued twitchers like me forever! So when I first decided to learn about the state bird of Alaska, I knew it would be an interesting run. 

Like the other 49 states of America, Alaska also has a symbolic state bird. And no, it’s definitely NOT the mosquito! Alaska’s state bird is far more majestic and sublime — the Willow Ptarmigan. This bird is also known as willow and red grouse in different countries. 

In this article, we will discuss all you need to know about Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan. Besides learning some interesting facts about this bird, we will also dive into the details of some basic bird stuff.

5 Interesting Facts About Alaska’s State Bird: Willow Ptarmigan

The more you learn about a bird, the more fascinating it seems. That’s especially true for Willow Ptarmigan.

A close up of male Willow Ptarmigan in Alaska
A male Willow Ptarmigan / Photo by Nathan Graff

After starting my research on this bird, I discovered some things that intrigued me to learn more about it. Here I will share some of the stuff that I found really interesting.

1. These Birds Are Great at Camouflage

The most interesting fact about the willow ptarmigan is its impressive ability to camouflage. Camouflage has always been an effective way for birds to avoid the eyes of predators and catch their own prey.

They smartly blend in with the surroundings that match the color of their feathers. However, the willow ptarmigans are on a whole new level.

A male Willow Ptarmigan in Alaska
A beautiful Willow Ptarmigan / Photo by Kristine Sowl

The willow ptarmigan can change the color of its plumage in different seasons. The plumage remains light brown in summer to blend in with dry lands, trees, and mountains. Then in winter, the color changes to snow white so it can vanish in the white! 

According to a study, young birds need two years to develop their summer plumage. 

2. Willow Ptarmigan Is the Largest Arctic Grouse in Arctic Region

The “arctic grouse” refers to some species of grouses found in the Arctic regions. Two more arctic grouses are found in Alaska, the white-tailed ptarmigans and the rock ptarmigans.

Willow Ptarmigan state bird of Alaska
The state bird of Alaska / Photo by George C. Wood

The willow ptarmigans are usually the largest among all three kinds of ptarmigans. 

3. It’s a Ground-Dwelling Bird

The willow ptarmigan is a ground-dwelling bird. That means this bird builds its nest at some suitable place on the ground and lays eggs there.

These ground-dwelling birds are very protective of their young. Parent birds protect the young ones from predators until they grow up. 

4. These Birds Have Feathered Feet

Another unique feature of the willow ptarmigan is its feathered feet. As it’s a ground-dwelling bird, the extra layer of feathers helps it to deal with the cold. Another interesting thing is the scientific name of this bird (Lagopus lagopus) is based on its distinct feathered feet.

Male Willow Ptarmigan bird in Alaska
Willow Ptarmigan in Alaska / Photo by Alan Schmierer

The name is derived from the Ancient Greek words “lagos” (λαγως), which means hare, and “pous” (πους), which means foot.

5. Capable of Flying High

Normally the willow ptarmigan don’t exceed 30 feet above sea level. However, this majestic bird can fly 12,000 feet above sea level. That’s almost 2/3rd of the height of Mount Saint Elias and almost the same height as Mount Deborah.

A female Willow Ptarmigan in Alaska
A female Willow Ptarmigan / Photo by Hans de Grys

They have been observed flying at that altitude while crossing mountains. Usually, the hawks and eagles can reach that altitude. For a ground-dwelling bird, it’s really impressive!

When Did Willow Ptarmigan Become a State Symbol of Alaska?

A state bird of America is a bird chosen by the legislature of a particular state to represent that state.

It’s considered the insignia of that state, has a special value to the residents, and is chosen based on unique factors. For the Alaskan people, the bird designated with that special value is the willow ptarmigan. 

There is a conflict of ideas about when the willow ptarmigan became the state bird of the Great Land. Some people say it was in 1955, while others believe it was in 1960.

Now the question is, which one is the right one and why? Let me clear out the confusion right away. 

The Willow ptarmigan was chosen as the territorial symbol of Alaska in 1955 and was chosen by the school children of Alaska.

Alaska wasn’t recognized as a state during that time. Alaska became the 49th US state in 1960. At that time, the willow ptarmigan automatically gained the designation of the state bird. 

So, the willow ptarmigan became a symbol of Alaska in 1955. Still, it was officially designated the state bird of Alaska in 1960. As per the legislation: “The Alaska Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus alascensis Swarth) is the official bird of the state.” 

Legislation context: Section 44.09.060 of the Alaska Statutes, Title 44 (State Government), Chapter 09 (State Seal, Flag, and Emblems), Section 060 (State Bird). 

What’s the Habitat of Willow Ptarmigan?

Among all the upland game birds living in North America, the willow ptarmigan has the reputation of being the most migratory species.

This bird’s change of habitat depends on the season. They tend to change their habitat to seek comfort and protection.

Willow Ptarmigan is a bird species that inhabit Arctic and subarctic regions in North America, Europe, and Asia. It can be found in various habitats, including tundra, alpine meadows, boreal forests, and rocky and mountainous areas. 

The Willow Ptarmigan is well adapted to living in cold environments with deep snow cover, thanks to its feathered feet, which provide insulation and better traction. 

During the summer, the birds may migrate to higher elevations for breeding and feeding. And in the winter, they may move to lower elevations or seek shelter in snow tunnels to avoid harsh weather.

What Are the Food Habits of Willow Ptarmigan?

Willow ptarmigans have an interesting food habit that varies based on different seasons.

For the most part of its life, this bird is a herbivore. However, they might also become insectivores for a certain phase when they fail to digest plant materials due to their underdeveloped cecum. 

The all-year diet of the adults includes willows. During the summertime, their nutrition and energy sources are berries (kinnikinnick berries, crowberries, cranberries, and blueberries), leaves, flowers, seeds, and twigs. 

In winter, they depend on trees such as willow and birch for buds, twigs, and catkins. 

What is the Current Situation of Willow Ptarmigan?

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the willow ptarmigan is a species of “Least Concern” (LC).

It means there are still plenty of willow ptarmigans in the wild, and even though the numbers are decreasing slightly, their extinction is not threatened.

The IUCN Red List affirms that the number of this arctic grouse species is more than 40,000,000. The European population has about 2,020,000 – 4,310,000 adult individuals. Also, there are 100,000 – 1,000,000 breeding pairs in Russia. 

Adaptability is the key to survival in this era, especially for the willow ptarmigans. They are still great in numbers because they can adapt to changes.

Whether it’s the weather or the food crisis, they have always found a way to survive by adapting to something suitable.  

Wrap Up

The willow ptarmigan upholds the spirit of the Great Land and its people, like its wings in the sky.

Its sociable nature, resourcefulness, adaptability, and the fact that it’s protective of its own represent the Alaskan community quite well. If you ask me, this bird is the most suited for this position!

The willow ptarmigan is a great food source for Alaska residents. But we must make sure that these birds aren’t killed unnecessarily, or their habitats aren’t damaged by us.

If we are not careful enough, this bird will also go extinct within a few decades.

Photo of author

Written and Fact-checked by David Neff

Author at BirdBonica

David is an expert birder and bird parent with in-depth knowledge of birds. He has years of experience observing birds in their natural habitats, studying their diets, behavior, and more. (Learn more about David here...)

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