Rock Ptarmigan

Lagopus muta

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Rock ptarmigans are a species of birds that belong to the so-called glacial relicts. Widely distributed during the last ice age (Younger Dryas), subsequent warming forced them to retreat into colder regions. Their somewhat patchy distribution covers polar regions of the northern hemisphere and in mountain regions. They are the only species within the ptarmigan family to inhabit Spitzbergen all year round. In Germany, one can only spot them in Bavaria in the High Alps, above tree level and at altitudes in excess of 3,000 meters. In these regions, their habitat consists of bio-diverse and richly variegated mountain pastures, dry montane grasslands, edges of moraines with barren vegetation and screes or permanently snow-covered valleys. Rock ptarmigans may moult up to 4 times a year; the colour and pattern of the plumage changes according to the respective season and habitat, thereby affording them seasonal camouflage. In spring, males have grey-brown patches with light banding and females are yellow-brown with dark banding. Moulting happens sequentially so that the birds remain well insulated during winter. Rock ptarmigans are culinary experts and tend to forage leaves, shoots, roots, buds, herbs, fruit and seeds, seldom insects. They have a specially adapted digestive system in the form of a particularly long appendix (proportional to body size) to manage this cellulose-rich diet. In contrast, the chicks consume a lot of protein from spiders and insects in their first weeks. Generally, a male dominates a territory, which is already roughly established by the time of courtship in autumn. Typically, he forms a monogamous pair with the female and will defend the territory. The female lays a clutch of 5 to 8 eggs in the ground nest, which she incubates alone. Once the precocial chicks have hatched, the female tends to them alone while the male tends to migrate to begin his moulting process. Families of rock ptarmigans flock together in the summer and disperse once more in the winter.

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