I find ptarmigan quite fascinating. They live in alpine and tundra areas. These areas are not typically bird habitat, but ptarmigan like grouse primarily live on the ground. They walk around foraging for plants and occasional insects. They will live in these barren areas all year round, so it isn’t surprising that they are well adapted for the cold and the snow.
They have bristly feathers on their feet that help them to stay on top of the snow. And, they change colour based on the season. They are white to camoflauge with the snow in the winter but they are a mottled brown in the summer.
Although there isn’t a ton of research that examines how climate change is or will affect these birds it is suspected that they will be affected quite significantly. First, there will be reduced habitat and food as the areas warm and changes. Their camoflauge is also likely to become a liability as the timing of the snow pack changes and their white feathers gleam against a rocky background white their dark feathers stand out against the snow making them an easy, or at least a more obvious target.
Ptarmigan aren’t the most charismatic creatures which affects how much people know about them. It can also impact research because you don’t necessarily come up with research questions about things you aren’t familiar with. In communication and education we talk about charismatic megafauna. An example with climate change is the polar bear. But here’s the thing, I’ve never seen a polar bear in person but I took the above photo myself. Ptarmigan might not be glamourous but they are relatively accessible so they could be an animal that helps to connect people with something like climate change. This is one of my passions is helping people connect to climate change through personal experiences and observations. So the next time you’re hiking through the mountains see if you can spot these ground dwelling birds with snowshoes.
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