The willow ptarmigan is found in the arctic and subarctic, the subalpine tundra of North America and northern Eurasia, and in the heather moorlands of Britain. Most populations overwinter within their breeding range; however, some winter flocks may occur lower in altitude and latitude than their breeding range. The willow ptarmigan has the largest distribution of all grouse species.
Population Size and Trends in Europe
Willow ptarmigan is widespread and common in many parts of its extensive range. Populations fluctuate in numbers and occur in regionally cyclic, 3-4 year cycles. In the Russian tundra, densities commonly reach 20-30 pairs per square kilometre, and up to 60 pairs in extreme cases. In Britain, breeding densities may reach a maximum of 115 pairs per square kilometre in areas intensively managed for grouse. Some range contractions have been recorded in parts of Europe (e.g. in the Baltic countries, Belarus). The species is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.
Habitat and Ecology
The willow ptarmigan primarily inhabits Arctic tundra, clearings in boreal forest, forest edge habitats and subalpine vegetation. They prefer moderately moist lowland areas rich in low willows (Salix) or birches (Betula), and ericaceous shrubs, mosses, grasses and herbs. Steep slopes, rocky areas and lichen-rich tundra are rarely used by this species. In winter, the birds prefer valley bottoms and riparian habitats with a dense cover of willows, birches, alder, aspen or conifers. In some regions, willow ptarmigan use farmland to a certain degree. Where willow ptarmigan and rock ptarmigan (L. mutus) exist sympatrically, the willow ptarmigan generally occurs at lower elevations and in wetter habitats, with denser vegetation.
Hunting and Cultural Importance in Europe
The willow ptarmigan is hunted throughout its range, except in the Baltic countries and Belarus, where it is fully protected. In many regions, it is a game bird of great cultural and economic importance, and it tends to be the most frequent grouse species found in a British hunter’s game bag. The habitats of the British subspecies scoticus, or “red grouse”, are intensively managed to produce high densities for sport hunting.
Like all grouse species, the willow ptarmigan is affected by habitat degradation. In general, the species’ habitats are well protected by their remoteness. In some localities, habitats may be affected by settlements, military bases, roads, mining, afforestation, cultivation and other human activities. Furthermore, road construction increases the accessibility of willow ptarmigan habitats to humans, and may result in increased hunting pressure (e.g. in North America, Russia and Scandinavia). Forestry practices were reported to impact habitats negatively in Finland. In some areas at the edge of their range, local populations may be threatened by their small size and possibly suboptimal habitats (e.g. in the Baltic countries). Small isolated populations are vulnerable to extinction due to chance events or loss of genetic variation. Collisions with reindeer fences and power lines may kill significant numbers of willow ptarmigan, as has been documented in Scandinavia and Scotland.
Population trends are unknown for major parts of the willow ptarmigan range due to lack of data. Human disturbance is expected to have a significant influence on the birds. Specialists express the concern that climate change might have an effect on the species, but the actual impact of a changing climate is currently unknown.
Current Conservation Measures
Due to their vast range and the secure status of the species, conservation needs are location-dependent.
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