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THE PTARMIGAN OF NEWFOUNDLAND
of Forest Resources & Agrifoods
The willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus alleni) known as “partridge” is
the more common of the two ptarmigan species inhabiting the heathlands of
insular Newfoundland and Labrador. This
ground dwelling, chicken-like species is a member of the grouse family.
Prized as an upland game bird, these nomads of the barrens can also
thrill the berry picker, fisherman, winter traveler and hiker alike.
To the hunter, the appeal is the pleasant autumn days on the barrens
walking in on a covey of birds pointed with intensity and style by a
well-trained setter and the explosive flush and blur of wings.
The berry picker and fisherman may experience the protective instincts of
the hen shepherding her away. Staying
with us year round, the winter traveler can also appreciate the adaptiveness of
this marvelous bird, decked in pure white plumage and sporting a pair of
snowshoes especially for the season.
Chicks emerging after an incubation period of 21-22 days are immediately capable of travel with the hen in search of food. Camouflaged in earth tone colors of gold, brown, gray and chestnut, they weigh less than an ounce when hatched. Fledging (capable of limited flight) occurs in 12-13 days as natal down is quickly replaced by contour and wing feathers. To the casual observer they are indistinguishable in size and general appearance from adults by mid to later September.
Ptarmigan like other grouse species have compact, stocky bodies borne on short, rounded wings. The wings remain white during all seasons; however can be folded and are inconspicuous during summer and early fall. Similarly, the fan shaped tail is permanently black and appropriately folded out of sight except in flight. Borne on short muscular legs the food has three forward oriented, feathered toes. The absence of a hind toe hinders the bird’s proficiency when feeding in low trees and brush.
One of the most effective methods of distinguishing the sex of birds while in the field in the fall is to examine the color of the tail. Distinct brown markings are mixed with the black on the tail feathers of females including the upper tail coverts. Males however lack the brown and have entirely black tails. A white border along the edge of the tail is found in both sexes. Two other sex determinants are the lengths of the wing and tail feathers.
Intermediate in size between the rock ptarmigan and the larger ruffed grouse, males (adults average 750 gms) are larger than females (adults average 670 gms).
The willow’s cousin, the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus welchi), is restricted in its distribution throughout the province to the highest, most barren, rocky habitats. On the island, these conditions prevail along the south coast from Cape Ray to Fortune Bay, in the Long Range Mountains of the West Coast and on the highest plateaus of the interior uplands.
Distinguishing one species from the other at all seasons can be confusing. Apart from the clue offered by the type of habitat in which each is found, the rock ptarmigan is aptly named as it has a grayish cast to its plumage when compared with the reddish brown of the willow. When observed at close range, the rock is obviously a smaller bird, with a more slender bill. During the winter, the mature male rocks (and possibly some females) have a black stripe from the bill to a point just behind the eye which is absent in willows.
Where ranges overlap, they are referred to as browsers and rockers. In Labrador, both species collectively are called “White partridge” to distinguish them from spruce (Canachites canadensis) and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).
HABITAT AND FOOD
To satisfy food requirements and meet breeding necessities, willows will undergo seasonal movements of considerable distance.
On the Avalon and Burin Peninsulas, winter shelter may be close at hand, and distances moved relatively short. Birds have been known however to move over 1000 km to winter cover in other parts of the island it is suspected that they migrate many hundreds of kilometers in Labrador.
By late spring, birds are on the barrens where males defend territories and where nesting and brood rearing will occur. Bergerud & Huxter (1969) described seven plant-associations characteristic of the Newfoundland barrens. Their general description is as follows: “The general vegetation aspect of the shaped islands of low conifers and marshes are interspersed with heath vegetation on dry ground. The heath sites, in turn, are a network of open exposed gravelly sites interlaced with cover a few inches high, and at times shrubs 1 or 2 ft. tall.”
The very simple, shallow nest constructed by the hen is often placed under some permanent overhanging vegetation. Frequently this is provided by a low prostate spruce or the edge of a balsam fir tuck. Hens seeking nest sites elsewhere will normally select shrub patches higher and denser than the immediate surroundings.
The preferred plant associations utilized by broods are the low and medium covers typified by the crowberry – caribou moss plant association and adjacent small fens. The preference for these habitats probably relates to the availability of food items and allows for unhindered movement of young chicks. As broods mature successively taller cover types are utilized.
When the hunting season opens in early fall, broods have not yet broken up. Birds remain on the barrens associated with the plant communities offering the most cover while relying on the balsam fir tucks and wooded areas for heavy cover when pursued. As the fall days shorten and trigger the moult to winter plumage the use of the evergreen tuckamores become more regular. With the first heavy snows and colder weather, movement to more wooded cover occurs where many birds spend the winter. There is some evidence that males may claim territories on the barrens in the fall and stay in the vicinity through out the winter if conditions permit. Separation of the sexes may occur at this time as females travel farther and seek more shelter for the winter. Females are also later returning to the barrens in spring.
The most extensive food habits study of Newfoundland willow ptarmigan was carried out by Peters (1958). Most of his results were obtained from studying the contents of fall crops collected during the hunting season. The crop is a thin, fleshy sac attached to the gullet and located along the neck between the skin and muscle of the chest. Food is temporarily stores in the crop prior to moving into the gizzard where grit (small stones) collected by the bird, helps to grind up the food items. Crops as heavy as 65-70 gm. (about 2 ounces) and stuffed to capacity are not uncommon.
Nearly all their food is plant matter although Peters did observe adults taking some insects. Chicks up to 10 days old feed almost exclusively on insects. They take tender plant items, such as berry blossoms as soon as their bills harden.
Most feeding occurs in the early morning and late evening and lasts for only a small percentage of the day. Feeling more secure, birds feed very rapidly and fill crops quickly under dim light conditions to avoid detection by predators.
Of the 60 different food items found in crops, 34 were eaten by adults, and 54 by young of the year.
From his food habits investigation, Peters makes the following observations:
“During early fall, berries comprise the bulk of ptarmigan food and blueberries make up over half of the total berry consumption. Other important berries are partridge berry, marshberry, ground hurts and black crowberry.”
“As fall progresses, …there is a transition to a more ligneous (woody) diet of buds and twigs that becomes more evident as winter approaches.”
“The winter diet of Avalon ptarmigan is almost exclusively of buds and twigs of blueberry and partridge berry, buds and catkins from birch and alder.”
During the spring an examination of crops by Bergerud and Mercer (1972) found marshberry leaves and fruit along with the leaves and fruit of partridge berry and the leaves of blueberry as significant food sources.
In his work, Peters found all parts of blueberry plant utilized including the fruit, leaves, buds, blossoms and stems. He summarizes the overall significance of this species,
“This extensive utilization throughout the year suggests that, providing there is an interspersion of adequate cover, this plant may singularly determine the carrying capacity of a given area for willow ptarmigan.”
Through their Canadian range ptarmigan populations cycle and exhibit regular dramatic fluctuations in abundance. Numbers peak at intervals of 9-11 years. In Scandinavian countries, peak populations occur on a shorter interval of 3-4 years. Since the turn of the century, peak populations on the island have occurred in 1909-10, 1925-26, 1929-31, 1940-41, 1950-51, 1960-61, 1970-71, 1977 and 1986. Peaks can be slightly unsynchronized from one region of the island to the next. The out-of-phase high in 1925 may have been influenced when a large section of the province was aflame in 1920 when a cyclic high was expected.
In addition to the cyclic changes that are occurring in these populations, there are also annual fluctuations. Researchers fall into on eof two camps when they attempt to explain what drives or controls these annual changes. They support either the idea of territorial spacing behavior or breeding success. In the former case, it is thought that the mechanics of spacing themselves on the fall and/or spring territories ultimately determines subsequent fall numbers. Birds that do not secure a territory are surplus and either die or form non-breeding groups. Proponents or this point of view would say that the birds self-regulate their numbers through their behavior toward one another. The latter hypothesis acknowledges the influence of extrinsic factors in the environments such as weather, food supply and predation acting separately or in combination to ultimately determine breeding success and the number of juveniles that survive to breed the next spring. In Newfoundland, Bergerud (1970) found that over an entire cycle, it was breeding success that was influencing the annual change in numbers. Juvenile birds per adult in August determined whether or not numbers increased or decreased the next spring. Nearly all chick mortality takes place in the first three weeks after hatching. Over an 11-year period on the Southern Shore, Bergerud (1970) reported the average mortality of chicks from hatch to autumn was 31 percent. Chicks up to 3 days after hatch continue to receive nourishment from the yolk sac of the egg being absorbed by their bodies. They are better able to survive without food during inclement weather than are older chicks dependent almost exclusively on insects.
Under normal wild conditions the longevity of ptarmigan is short. The majority of individuals live less than one year although maximum life span is probably 3-4 years. To maintain the population of such a relatively short-lived bird minimum breeding success is required annually.
In its circumpolar range the clutch size for ptarmigan varies from 6 to 11. The average clutch found in 106 nests on the island was 10.2. Some females renest after a failed first attempt and will have a smaller second clutch. During years when the nesting activities begin early, clutch sizes tend to be larger than in seasons when the birds next late. The annual clutch size has not been found to be correlated with spring densities. This amounts to saying that clutch size does not vary with cycle highs or lows.
Typically, there is a high annual mortality rate when hunting mortality and natural mortality are combined. This occurs in ptarmigan as in all upland birds. A ten-year average annual mortality of 72 percent was reported by Bergerud (1970). He found that for every 100 birds in September, 28 were alive to nest in the spring. Over 90 percent of these mortalities occurred between October and May.
The proportion of males to females when chicks hatch is about equal. However, females die at a slightly higher rate than males and the adult sex ratio on the second October of life favors males.
Juveniles, especially those from late broods, are more prevalent in the hunter’s bag than in the population.
HUNTING AND MANAGEMENT
According to Meades (1983) insular Newfoundland is 56 percent boreal forest, 20 percent barrens and 24 percent wetland and open water. The 2 million hectares of barren is the largest tract of such vegetation on the North American continent south of the Canadian tundra, We are unique among Canadians to have the opportunity to enjoy and hunt barren land and wildlife species not available to other than the most northern residents. Ptarmigan are among these species and their pursuit has become a part of the provincial heritage and culture over the past 500 years.
An association of avid hunters and conservationists on the Avalon Peninsula organized “The Partridge Forever Society” in 1992. This dedicated group has the common objective of protecting this hunting privilege and to work for the conservation of the bird and its habitat. Commissioned by the Society and available at a cost of $5.00 is a work by Dr. Leslie Dean (1993), “Partridge Shooting In Newfoundland & Labrador”. All dedicated ptarmigan hunting will identify with Dr. Dean’s personal handling of the subject as he elicits memories and antidotes of hunting experiences long past while he recognizes and present status of the ptarmigan as one of the foremost game birds in the province.
From 1984 to 1990 ptarmigan hunters on the island spent an average of 5 days in the field each fall. Considering that there were about 7200 active ptarmigan hunters afield annually in those years, the popularity of the sport here is obvious. The highest annual license sale in the past 25 years was in 1977 when 31,500 were purchased. In Labrador during the same period, license sales were increasing annually from 2850 in 1984 to 4250 in 1990. Labrador hunters spent more time hunting and reported an average of 16 days per season between 1984-90.
The success of hunters is dependent upon the availability of birds, the amount of hunting effort expended and in the eastern part of the island especially, the hunting method employed. It is interesting to note the success of hunters using dogs versus those without. This is partly explained by the extra days afield by those owning dogs – 6.1 days versus 3.9 days.
The cyclic pattern of a number of northern species including ptarmigan translates into years of boom, bust and everything in between.
Low populations in 1956, 1964, 1972 and 1982 are reflected in individual hunter success of 1.0, 2.0, 3.7 and 2.7 birds respectively for the season. During the 1951, 1960, 1970, 1977 and 1986 seasons. 9.5, 4.5, 7.5, 8.9 and 7.5 birds per hunter reflects population at or near peak numbers.
The average harvest of birds on the island in the 1983-1991 period was 55,000 annually and ranged from 36,000 – 77,000. Seventy – 80 percent of the harvest occurred by the end of October, that is, in the first half of the season. Birds are also snared throughout the winter in sets made mostly for rabbits. Information submitted on the returns from rabbit licenses in 1990-91 estimates an average of 2 – 3 ptarmigan caught per respondent.
Most unplanned game bird management strategies today remain firmly rooted in the compensation principle. It stated that if birds are not killed by hunters, then natural mortality over-winter will reduce the population anyway. If the kill is high then natural over-winter mortality is reduced or compensated for and few are lost over-winter. One aspect of this principle requires that voids created by hunting in accessible and optimum habitats be filled by dispersing birds from unhunted or lightly hunted areas. In the absence of an operating compensation mechanism, hunting mortality can be additive to natural sources of mortality and reduce overall spring populations. With a cyclical species like ptarmigan, the spring breeding pair density is continually changing and rarely is the dame two years in a row. The cyclical phenomenon plays a large part in masking the overall influence of hunting and other mortality factors clearly more work needs to be done in this area. Research on this topic in other jurisdictions must be closely watched as there is now some movement of opinion toward an acceptance of hunting as being additive to other forms of mortality under some circumstances.
A large proportion of the most suitable barren land habitat for ptarmigan on the island has resulted from the human impacts of cutting and burning. Uncontrolled sporadic fires still occur, but less frequently and on average are smaller. This is a credit to the Provincial Forest Service, however fire is a natural phenomenon in the tundra and forest-tundra ecosystems and since they have evolved in the presence of fire, require periodic burns for their long-term maintenance. The perceived need for fire suppression in these habitats has enormous implications. Much of this habitat is slowly being reclaimed by the normal succession process and may no longer provide the necessary qualities for nesting and brood rearing. Many Newfoundland sportsmen contend that the best ptarmigan hunting is generally found in areas that were burned or disturbed a few years previously.
Burning as a management tool for keeping the Scottish moors in peak production for sheep and red grouse (a close relative of the willow ptarmigan) has been practiced for over a hundred years. Burning the local barrens as a management practice is under investigation in the Fairhaven area located on the isthmus of the Avalon Peninsula.
On a province-wide basis the Wildlife Division relies heavily on license holders to provide the information they gather in the course of the hunting season to judge the general direction in which populations are moving. Three obvious ways the sportsman can provide this is through the completion of the license return and periodic questionnaires along with the provision of a properly labeled wing from each bird killed.
Cooperating sportsmen who return one wing from the birds harvested in the fall, provide valuable information on the ratio between young and adult birds in the population. Adult birds can be distinguished from young of the year by utilizing the difference in the moulting sequence and pigmentation of primary wing feathers. This ratio is important when assessing nesting success and brood survival.
The completion of the license return is also a valuable contribution by hunters and provides the Division with information on the abundance of birds, estimated harvest and timing of their hunting effort for various regions in the province.
The resident of northern territories and severe climate is the epitome of hardiness and adaptability. Appealing to a wide spectrum of people using the outdoors it is more to the people of Newfoundland than just a quarry to be pursued.