You are here

Some very unusual animals live in NWO

By Al Lowe
Ptarmigans

We have a tendency to think of Northwestern Ontario as being the parts we are familiar with - Lake Superior, Kenora, Wawa and so on. We don’t think about the vast part of our land which goes away up to the shores of Hudson and James Bays. Yet this is part of Northwestern Ontario, too.
That is the land of some very unusual animals. Among them are the Ptarmigans. There are really three species of these in Canada, but only one in Ontario. That one is the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus). This is a chicken-like or grouse-like bird, which behaves like all the others of the type. It eats mainly seeds, lives on the ground, chicks can run as soon as they dry off, and so on.
It is quite small, not quite as big as our Ruffed Grouse. It may weigh in at a pound and a half. It is a ground bird, mostly because there aren’t many trees to get into. It is usually found at or above the tree line. It favours moist areas, small creeks with willows on its banks, or river valleys. In winter, it often moves south to muskegs, forest openings, and lake shores.
Ptarmigans have a habit which not many birds have. It changes colour in the winter. Someone said that it is always changing one colour to another. In the summer, the body of the male bird is chestnut red-brown. Tail cover feathers (not the tail itself) are also brown. Wings, however, stay white. To get ready for winter, this bird loses almost all of its brown feathers and exchanges them for white. The main tail feathers, though, stay black, all year. The hen bird is brown, not as reddish as the male, so she blends in with the leaves of the tundra. She also turns white in the winter, so the sexes look almost exactly alike.
Another somewhat different thing about the Ptarmigans is that they have feathers on their feet all the time. They get around quite easily on top of the snow. Our Ruffed Grouse accomplishes the same thing by growing scaly ‘snowshoes’ on its feet.
All grouse-like males do something to attract the females during the mating season. The Ruffed Grouse drums, other grouse do elaborate things in flight, roosters and pheasants crow. But the Ptarmigans are different. One species screams, another one snores, and the Willow Ptarmigan gargles.
This bird breeds in the very far north, all around the pole but in Ontario only on the shores of James and Hudson Bays. But, for some reason not known, sometimes they make trips very far south of that. Ptarmigans have been spotted at Lake Winnipeg, Red Lake, Sault Ste. Marie, and Whiteby (near Toronto) and even Montreal. Note, though, that these sightings are very, very, very rare indeed.
Don’t look for it on your front lawn anytime soon.