OBJECT OF THE MONTH - January, 2008

White-tailed Ptarmigans (Lagopus leucura)

White-tailed ptarmigans (Lagopus leucura) in winter plumage (UCM 1054, left) and summer plumage (UCM 1055, right); taxidermy specimens on display in the Biology Hall.

The size of a small chicken, white-tailed ptarmigan (pronounced TAR-mi-gan) is the only alpine bird in North America to remain all year round on the harsh tundra environment near or above timberline at around 12000 feet.

Depending on the time of the year, white-tailed ptarmigans demonstrate striking change in feather color. Their pure white plumage is observed during the non-breeding season from October through April, and is an effective camouflage on snowbanks. During the brief summer breeding season, they turn their plumage color to mottled brown, which allow them to blend well into the open rock fields. Ptarmigans' seasonal molting patterns, in addition to their densely feathered feet, are a clear indication of their physiological and morphological adaptation to the alpine tundra habitat.
White-tailed ptarmigans' geographic range extends from south-central Alaska and western Canada south to north-central New Mexico. In Colorado, they are found in relatively narrow corridors of all mountain ridges excluding the Wet Mountains and the Spanish Peaks.
According to the Museum's Bird Collection catalogue records, the pair of white-tailed ptarmigans in this photograph were both obtained from Breckenridge, Colorado 122 years ago in 1886. Subsequently, the taxidermy mounts had been put on public display since the 1950s (see the black and white photo). Today, you can still see these specimens exactly as they appeared in a classic style 50 years ago in the Biology Hall, a permanent exhibition gallery in the basement of the Museum.
Without blinking their eyes or singing cheerful songs, the ptarmigans and other nearly 300 taxidermy birds from the Colorado bird collection have witnessed numerous visitors to the Museum exhibit, as well as the dynamic history of the Museum itself over half a century. With a mixture of great excitement and a bit of sentimental feeling, the Museum of Natural History announces that the Biology Hall will be renovated in the near future.