The rock ptarmigan occurs in the Arctic and alpine tundra of North America and northern Eurasia. Most of the Arctic coast and islands are inhabited by the species, although it retreats from the northernmost regions during winter. Within Europe, the northernmost populations inhabit northern Greenland and beyond. The southernmost populations are in the Pyrenees. Rock ptarmigan are migratory in large areas of the northern Arctic; in winter they often are nomadic in large flocks. The rock ptarmigan has the widest latitudinal distribution of all grouse species.
Population Size and Trends in Europe
The rock ptarmigan still occupies most of its original range, and is relatively secure due to the inaccessibility of its habitat. However, some range contractions and local extinctions have occurred (e.g. in the UK, due to global warming or excessive sheep grazing). Population densities vary greatly, often in approximately 10-year cycles. Reported figures range between <1 and >60 birds per square kilometre. The species is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.
Habitat and Ecology
The rock ptarmigan inhabits dry tundra and alpine habitats, with rocky ridges or outcrops and relatively sparse vegetation dominated by grasses, lichens and mosses. The rock ptarmigan selects wintering areas that allow access to ground vegetation (e.g. windswept ridges and slopes). Some populations spend the winter on or close to their breeding habitat; others winter in shrubby areas at or above the treeline, or in forest edge habitats. Long-distance, southward winter migrations are common for high-latitude populations. Where the rock ptarmigan exists sympatrically with the willow grouse (L. lagopus), the rock ptarmigan generally occurs at higher elevations and in drier habitats with sparser vegetation.
Hunting and Cultural Importance
The species is hunted in many parts of its European range. However, because of its lower densities and less accessible habitats, the rock ptarmigan has always been less important as a game bird than the willow grouse.
In general, the species is well protected by its wide distribution in areas of low human population density. Threats to local populations are mostly related to overhunting and tourism development. Rock ptarmigan are susceptible to overharvesting, particularly if hunted in spring in the vicinity of settlements. However, extinction due to overharvesting is only a localised threat. Loss and degradation of habitats due to tourism development, such as the expansion or upgrading of ski-resorts, have been reported as threats to populations in Europe (Alps, Pyrenees). Direct disturbance related to human presence may displace birds from wintering areas, and may be threatening populations. Negative impacts on habitat quality have been reported in Iceland due to the erosion of heathlands as a result of sheep grazing. Mortality due to collisions with cables around ski-stations has been reported as a threat in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Current conservation measures
Awareness campaigns have been initiated in Germany in order to reduce human disturbance due to ski-touring. Besides raising awareness, re-routing of hiking and ski-trail networks are the most common approaches. However, due to the vast range and the secure status of the species, conservation needs tend to be location-specific. Below, we provide more information and links to conservation programmes for the rock ptarmigan. If you would like to add information on the rock ptarmigan or add a link to a project, please contact us.