The willow ptarmigan, an arctic grouse, is the state bird of Alaska. It lives in arctic areas and is one of three species of ptarmigan. Although the males and females have different distinctive markings and coloring, both sexes slightly alter their appearance with the season to camouflage themselves in their environment. Their eating habits also change according to the season. Both the male and female play important roles in the care of the eggs.
In 1955, the willow ptarmigan, also known as the Lagopus lagopus, was named the state bird of Alaska. They live in the arctic areas of Alaska and Canada, especially in valleys and heavily vegetated areas, but they migrate southward for winter. Although there are two other subspecies of ptarmigan — the winter rock ptarmigan and the white tailed ptarmigan — the willow ptarmigan is the one that is most widely found.
The state bird of Alaska actually bears resemblance to a chicken. The willow ptarmigan has a relatively short tail, a stocky body, feathered legs and toes, and measures approximately 15 inches (38 cm). In summer, the male is reddish brown, but has a white belly and wings. The female has darker coloring than the male and is more mottled. They go through molting in spring and fall, and in winter, are completely white except for a few black feathers on the tail.
As with their physical appearance, their eating habits change in the summer and winter. During the summer, they feed mainly on insects, leaves, berries, flowers and buds. In winter, they eat mostly the buds of alders and willows.
When making their nest, the willow ptarmigan looks for a sheltered area that's surrounded by large rocks, logs and plants. The nest is in a hollowed out area of ground that's lined with feathers, grass and other vegetation. The female will lay about seven to ten eggs, which she incubates for approximately three weeks. While she sits on the eggs, the male protects the nesting areas from predators, specifically foxes, owls and hawks. He is thought to be the only subspecies of grouse in the world who takes an active part in the care of the eggs.
It's believed that the willow ptarmigan was made the state bird of Alaska due to its frequency in the state. They also stand out due to being the most abundant and largest out of the three subspecies of ptarmigan in the area. During the spring, they are sometimes seen in flocks containing a thousand or more birds.