Issue: 2016-10-06, PHOTO: by Paul Rath
Ptarmigan summer dress
The Ptarmigan is the territorial bird of the Yukon.
Ed. Note: The distinction of being known as the Yukon's territorial bird goes to the raven, which, Canada Post recently announced, is to be featured on a stamp. Ravens are more widespread than ptarmigan. They are found throughout the territory and are totally black. The Ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska, and changes colour according to the season.
Ptarmigan congregate along river banks when salmon are spawning, the birds eat the fish.
Ed. Note: Ptarmigan do not eat salmon, nor do they congregate along river banks. This behaviour is more in line with bald eagles. The willow ptarmigan feeds primarily on vegetation like berries, leaves, twigs and seeds. The ptarmigan inhabits subalpine and subarctic habitats. They are seen in places like the Haines highway and on the Dempster.
In 1880 Alaskan residents of a city about to be incorporated (the second city to be incorporated in the state) wanted to name the city Ptarmigan. This is because the birds, which are like wild chickens, provided a significant food source for gold miners. The founding fathers, however, could not agree on the correct spelling. To avoid ridicule, residents settled on "Chicken" instead.
Ed. Note: Surprisingly, this seems to be accurate, or at least within accepted mythology.
The haunting cry of the ptarmigan has become an icon of the Canadian wilderness. There are many tales written about ptarmigan and their cries echoing across open water in the darkness.
Ed. Note: No, Paul. You are thinking of the loon.
Ptarmigan are masters of camouflage. In winter they change colour to be totally white, except for black tail feathers, visible only when they fly away from you. Those unable to change colour migrated to Antarctica where they provide food for polar bears.
Ed. Note: The first sentence is true. However, there are no ptarmigan, or bears, in Antarctica. Arctic means ‘bears’, Antarctica means ‘no bears’.
Ptarmigan were introduced to the U.S. from Asia in the 1880s and gradually migrated north.
Ed. Note: No Paul. This is untrue. You are thinking of the ring necked pheasant. So far, you only have one urban myth-type fact in your story. Ptarmigan are distributed in most countries in the northern hemisphere that have subalpine or subarctic habitat.
Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to aurora borealis causes the plumage of the ptarmigan to change from summer colours which include reds and browns, to pure white, its winter colour. It is the return of the aurora in the fall that triggers the change in plumage, and when the aurora disappears in the spring, the birds once again change into their summer look.
Ed. Note: This is pure fiction. There are no studies that have indicated the aurora is the cause of ptarmigan changing colour. As the ptarmigan lives primarily on the ground, it needs to be able to camouflage itself in both winter and summer. This is done by a moult. The summer feathers are replaced by the winter feathers.
The scientific name of the Ptarmigan means “hare foot”, and refers to the feathers on the birds feet.
Ed. Note: Although this point also appears to be true, the next time you are in Whitehorse, we need to have a serious talk.
Paul Rath is an avid outdoorsman and freelance writer, when he is not deliberately making things up.
Ed. Note: Those aren’t really my notes. - MD