Ptalking Ptrash with a Ptarmigan

By , May 21, 2010

On our recent trip to Fairbanks, we saw a lot of willow ptarmigan. Going over the pass to Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Canada, we must have seen 50 each way. The best encounter came the day we drove to Denali National Park, south of Fairbanks.

A willow ptarmigan cock on the Denali Park road (photo: Aly Zeiger)

The willow ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, is a lot like a small chicken with better flying skills. At this time of year they’re transitioning from winter white to a russet brown. The males have a bright red eyebrow ridge. Their feet are feathered against the cold, which gives them an interesting look.

As we drove along the Denali road, Aly spotted a ptarmigan on the shoulder. We stopped to watch it, and on a whim, I began to imitate the call. This is a very comical sound that you would recognize from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the opening scene, immediately after the line, “If they knew we were here, they’d have killed us already,” the “jungle bird” the two bearers hear and turn to look for is a willow ptarmigan. How an upland game bird of the far north got to South America is a subplot that apparently didn’t make the final edit of the movie . . . .

My ptarmigan imitation isn’t good, but apparently it was good enough. The bird reacted by growing wary, then he bunched up and began to respond with little clucks, his throat bulging slightly as if his Adam’s apple were bobbing up and down. He came closer to investigate, giving us a better view. Finally, he responded with a full call. He stretched his neck high, made his funny, deep sound, and the feathers of his neck stuck out and vibrated. He then came even closer, but went toward the car behind us (they’re not very bright birds). That was okay, we’d met the people behind us before. They were from Massachusetts, so they appreciated a better look at the bird.

I’ve only hunted ptarmigan a few times. I’ve never thought of trying to call them. Next time I’m in the uplands, maybe I’ll try ptalking some ptrash.

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