A Bird the Colour of Winter – From delicacy to cultural icon

    Female aqiggiq or rock ptarmigan in Nunavut. © Fiona Hunt

    Nunavut’s territorial bird confounds southerners and even some residents. English speakers routinely pronounce the p, which really is silent. And therein lies a tale.

    Ptarmigan comes from the Gaelic, tàrmachan, for “grumbler” or “croaker,” a reminder of the ptarmigan’s grouchy voice. But in 1684, the Scottish naturalist Sir Robert Sibbald, added the unpronounced p, falsely suggesting a Greek word origin (as in ptero-, “feather” or “wing”). Perhaps this learned northern gent simply slipped or else tried to elevate the monkish, pedestrian bird.

    Overwintering in the Arctic, as do redpolls, ravens, and snowy owls — only eleven tribes of Aves live there year-round — ptarmigans by the hundreds come together for the dark season. Three domestic kinds occupy different niches: willow ptarmigan (also “willow grouse,” or “red grouse,” in Britain) prefer boreal forest and wetlands; the most northerly of terrestrial birds, rock ptarmigan (formerly known as “snow chicken” or “white pheasant”) feel at home in drier foothills and uplands. The less well-known white-tailed ptarmigan, in contrast with its cousins, is not circumpolar. Its realms are spiny heights, alpine ridges and meadows of southern Alaska, the Pacific Northwest’s coastal ranges, and the Rockies. Quick-change artists, all three species switch from solid umber, chestnut, and black-barred gold to mottled to all-cream plumage and back during a single year. The sun’s shifting arc — amounts of daylight or “photoperiod” — triggers these seasonal makeovers. Unlike geese and ducks, ptarmigan never become flightless because they replace feathers sequentially.

    Inuit carved-bone bola, for bringing down birds and small game. Courtesy of The Cobbs Auctioneers

    A trick bag of physical and behavioural traits allows these hardy locals to gain weight on a winter diet when other creatures starve. They can weather minus 40 degrees. The genus name Lagopus —“hare-footed” — to which they belong, points to their densely fringed legs. The birds grow more feathers in the fall, especially on their toes. This helps them keep warm but also contributes to the “snowshoe effect.” Their claws as well grow almost twice as long in time for that season, useful as “crampons” and digging tools. Thus, they float atop the snow, probing for buried catkins and willow twigs and later, peck at buds.

    Males stay white longer in the spring when the snow melts and their inflatable, lipstick-red “eyebrow” wattles accentuate their inconspicuous garb. The female on the nest will petrify, camouflaged; meanwhile, enthroned on a nearby hummock, her mate serves as target, willing to sacrifice his life to a predator so that their brood may survive. Studies indeed have shown that Arctic foxes mostly kill ptarmigan cocks at that time of year. They stalk them and pounce on molting or nesting adults, or fluff-ball chicks.

    Roasted-Broiled Ptarmigan with Cranberries

    • 1-2 ptarmigan (brined overnight, then marinated in lemon and garlic overnight)
    • 1 cup red wine
    • Handful of minced red onion
    • Cupful of cranberries
    • 2 tbsp Olive oil
    • Sherry or balsamic vinegar
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    1. Preheat the oven to 425F.
    2. Separate the breast from the rest of the bird. Then cut the meat off the bone. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto the breasts. Set them aside for now.
    3. Roast: Flatten the rest of the ptarmigan (back, legs and wings). Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place it on a pan, skin side up. Put into the oven for 15 minutes.
    4. Sear: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat in a pan. Sear the breasts (skin side up) for 5 minutes. There should be a nice brown crust. Remove the meat from pan and set aside on a plate.
    5. Red wine-cranberry sauce: In the same pan, add another tbsp of oil and toss in minced red onion. Sauté the onion until caramelized.
    6. Deglaze the pan with red wine. Reduce heat to a low simmer.
    7. Simmer away the red wine until it is reduced by half. The wine should be thick enough to coat the back of your spoon.
    8. Toss in cranberries.
    9. Add a splash of either sherry or balsamic vinegar.
    10. Season to taste and set aside for plating.
    11. Broil: When the bird is done roasting, turn on the broiler.
    12. Place breasts (skin side up) in the pan with the rest of the bird.
    13. Place pan a few inches from broiler and broil for 5 minutes.
    14. Let meat rest for 10 minutes before cutting.
    15.  Serve: Slice breast meat into slices. The breast meat should be medium rare (still pink on the inside). Chop the bird lengthwise along the spine.

    Jen Lam from Inuvik, Northwest Territories

    For millennia Native people hunted ptarmigan with blunt arrowheads, to roast, smoke and dry, eat raw, or make into soup. Men, women, and children downed the plump protein packages with ivory-weighted bolas, snared them with braided sinew or wire loops set in willow twig-fences. Decoys fooled amorous or territorial males. A hunter would clear a soil patch and sculpt a bird from snow, dressing it with russet grass around the neck to mimic spring plumage.

    Perfectly camouflaged rock ptarmigan with chick near Baker Lake, Nunavut. © Sophia Granchinho

    In the Arctic, ptarmigans were often the only defense against dreaded cycles of famine and scarcity. Permafrost pits served as emergency caches or summertime freezers. Uncooked eggs made simple snacks out on the land. The leafy greens-stomach content yielded vitamins that up North are in short supply. Always travelling light, Gwich’in Athabaskans cooked ptarmigan by filling the chest cavity with water and dropping a hot rock where a hot heart formerly pulsed.

    People traded the feathers or used them to scrub hands and dishes, or to diaper babies. They fletched arrows with the feathers — the blood was a vital part of the glue. The skins made handy napkins or rags. Inuit sewed the brilliant eye “combs” of cock ptarmigan as fancy piping onto men’s clothes. With this broad sweep of consumption, ptarmigan was the Northerner’s bison, yet far easier prey.

    Small wonder ptarmigans transcended mere sustenance. Cultures worldwide borrowed the jumps, struts, and plumage spreading of grouse-like suitors for their dances. A ptarmigan amulet foot made a boy a fast and tireless runner — however, he was not to eat the bird’s meat lest he’d grow timid or easily rattled. A carcass placed on an infant’s neck and then whisked away promised invisibility from enemies.

    Birds structured time not just by wearing different seasonal coats. A boy’s first ptarmigan kill made him a man (and relatives gleefully ripped his trophy apart in symbolic sharing). Names of the months referenced egg laying, hatching, and the molt. An Inuit child’s birth season determined the material of its first bird skin-garment: waterfowl for the summer and ptarmigan for the dark season’s offspring.

    Mocking drum-song duels took place between “Pintail Ducks,” Inuit born in a summer skin tent, and “Ptarmigans,” who first saw the light of a seal oil lamp in an iglu. (“His head is like a swollen thumb joint. His beak is like a thumbnail…” the insults fly in the Baffin Island version.) In physical contests, team Ducks punted a ball toward water with Ptarmigans surging landward, trying to keep it in their habitat. The outcome in a tug of war between the two foretold hunting fortune in the following season.

    Non-natives valued the tender fowl just as much. In a sport-hunting manual from 1883, the zoologist Charles E. Whitehead similarly considered ptarmigan the “chief delicacy of the Arctic explorer,” also “plentifully in the larders of the posts of the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company.” In Nova Scotia, according to Audubon, when snow glazed the ground, the birds were “obliged to scratch through it, in order to get at the mosses and lichens” yet “so abundant that a hundred or more can be shot in a day” as they congregated in immense numbers.

    Sir John Franklin’s ships carried ptarmigan taken from Scottish moors, salted and barrelled, and a paunchy Wyatt Earp served fresh ones for Thanksgiving 1898, ice-bound in Rampart, on the Yukon. One old-time trapper hung his birds in a spruce, retrieving the frozen treats as needed from this “Christmas tree.” Their flesh is said to taste sweeter in the fall when they gorge on berries. The meat is “dark coloured, and has somewhat the flavour of the hare,” one 18th-century naturalist wrote. Baked into pies, ptarmigan brightened the drab fare of ships’ crews. In a newspaper handwritten onboard HMS Assistance during the search for Franklin, her Captain, W. H. Austin in 1850 ranked them “foremost in the list [of birds] for flavour and delicacy of fibre.”

    Thinking about camp and your own next meal, you may flush ptarmigans unknowingly from the willows while hiking in grizzly bear country — your heart will promptly miss a beat. They won’t, sailing off with staccato, guttural kok-kok-koks like noisy windup toys running down. Their flashing white wings and alarm can distract enemies from a nest.

    Chance upon downy claws or severed white wings in the barrenlands and you know a raptor has struck. (True gourmets, gyrfalcons above all relish ptarmigan breast muscles and brains.) Conversely, remnants like those from a pillow fight suggest not a fox meal but an angel fallen to earth.

    Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, a Foreword INDIES gold medalist. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works as a wilderness guide.

    VIAMichael Engelhard
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