Common Ground: Flighty dating habits of the willow ptarmigan

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Willow ptarmigan can play hard to get during mating season. But don’t ptake it ptersonally.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Willow ptarmigan can play hard to get during mating season. But don’t ptake it ptersonally.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

My recent experience volunteering for a spring ptarmigan survey has given me cause to consider the dating habits of these territorial creatures. I am constantly asked questions about what I have learned. Here are the most common questions and answers:

  • Why do male ptarmigan wait up to a week to call after a great date?

If this occurs during mating season, the reason is often because the female is in the territory of another male. He may have been chased off by another territorial male or is busy defending his own area. Ptarmigan are not afraid to appear pushy or overeager, so it is a mistake to assume he is not interested. They are also not worried about commitment, as they are comfortable with infidelity, and believe that the females should look on with interest should they approach another female. The grass may be greener on the other side, but only if that grass is not within the boundary of another territorial male.

  • Why do male ptarmigan make plans to “talk later” and then never follow up?

Male ptarmigan are known to “spin out” on their female counterparts. It doesn’t mean they are ambivalent. It does not mean they are not ready to form a pair relationship. Of the three ptarmigan species (rock, willow and white tail), the willow ptarmigan is the least likely to play games. If he planned to talk later, he meant it. He just doesn’t have the brain capacity to tell time. Their memory is episodic at best, and it’s not clear whether they know how much time has passed.

  • Why does he always talk so much about his accomplishments and how important he is?

Male willow ptarmigan develop a beautiful cape of chestnut red feathers beginning in May. The hens are not as good-looking. Male ptarmigan know that the truth hurts and they would rather say something nice (about themselves) than say something unkind about the less-striking physique and coloring of the hen in comparison. He also believes that his social status and financial portfolio are features that will make him more attractive to women.

  • Why won’t he introduce me to his family?

The reproductive urge makes male ptarmigan less tolerant of each other. They will help care for their chicks and may even take over all family responsibilities if the hen is killed. But they are not that into their parents. There’s a fable from the Jewish tradition that expresses the way love works for the ptarmigan rather well, “The love of the parents goes to their children; the love of these children goes to their children.” The male ptarmigan doesn’t introduce hens to his family either because they might be dead or he forgot about them.

Male ptarmigan territorial activity is greatest at dusk and dawn, much like the common American male human. Once they establish a territory, they are not likely to change their area, making them poor candidates for long-distance relationships. They will often sit within sight of another male and the two will stare across their mutual boundary much like a pair of grumpy old men. It’s a wonder the female ptarmigan have any interest in them at all. I’m not trying to make excuses for their behavior, I’m just glad I never have to date one.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.


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Filed under birds, Common Ground, outdoors

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