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Lagopus lagopus is the Willow Grouse of Europe, and called Willow Ptarmigan in North America. It is a medium-sized gamebird in the grouse subfamily. It is a sedentary species, breeding in birch and other forests and moorlands in the tundra of Scotlandmarker, Scandinavia, Siberiamarker, and of Alaskamarker and northern Canadamarker. It is the state bird of Alaska.


In summer male's plumage is marbled brown, with a reddish hue to the neck and breast, a black tail, and white wings and underparts. It has two inconspicuous wattles above the eyes, which become prominent in the breeding season. The female is similar, but lacks the wattles and has brown feathers strewn all over the belly. In winter, both sexes' plumages become completely white, except for the black tail.

They can be distinguished from the Ptarmigan (L. muta) by habitat (L. lagopus is not found above the tree line), larger size and thicker bill; the summer plumage is browner, the winter Willow Ptarmigan's male lacks the black loral stripe.

The distinctive Britishmarker subspecies L. l. scotica (Red Grouse) has sometimes been considered a separate species. This moorland bird is reddish brown all over, except the white feet. It does not have a white winter plumage.

The male's call is a loud go-back go-back.

Taxonomy and systematics

The Willow Grouse's scientific name, Lagopus lagopus is derived from Ancient Greek lagos (λαγως) "hare" + pous (πους) "foot", in reference to the bird's feathered feet which allow it to negotiate frozen ground (see also Snowshoe Hare).

Depnding on the author, some 10-20 subspecies of the Willow Groupse are recognized. Most differ little in appearance, though as noted above, L. l. scoticus is rather distinct. Some commonly-accepted subspecies are:
  • L. l. lagopus (Linnaeus, 1758) – Scandinavian Willow Grouse
  • L. l. scoticus (Latham, 1787)Red Grouse
  • L. l. alascensis Swarth, 1926 – Alaskan Willow Ptarmigan
  • L. l. variegatus Salomonsen, 1936 – Trondheimsfjord Willow Grouse

File:Rype 5163.jpg|Adult female in summer plumage, Trollheimenmarker (Norwaymarker)File:Lagopus lagopus Urals.jpg|Adult female in summer plumage, near Saranpaul in the northeast Uralsmarker (Beryozovsky District, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrugmarker, Russiamarker)File:WillowPtarmigan23.jpg|Adult male L. l. alascensis in autumn plumage, Lake Clark National Parkmarker (Alaskamarker, USAmarker)File:Moorschneehuhn.jpg|Adult female in winter plumage near Tromsømarker (Norway)

During the Pleistocene, the species widely occurred in continental Europe. Authors who recognize paleosubspecies have named the Pleistocene Willow Grouse L. l. noaillensis (though the older name medius might be the correct one). These marginally different birds gradually changed from the earlier (Pliocene) Lagopus atavus into the present-day species. Pleistocene Willow Grouse are recorded from diverse sites until the end of the Vistulian glaciation about 10,000 years ago, when the species, by then all but identical from the living birds, retreated northwards like its tundra habitat.


L. lagopus are hardy vegetarian birds, but insects are also taken by the hatchling young.

In all other species of grouse, only the female takes responsibility for the young. However, the male Willow Grouse often takes responsibility of the young also, in particular in defneding them against predators. Males will attack humans to distract from their young, and have even been documented attacking a Grizzly Bear.

Widespread and not uncommon in its remote habitat, the Willow Groupse is classified as a Species of Least Concern by the IUCN.



  • (2002): Tetraonidae VIGORS, 1825 (Galliformes – Aves) in the Neogene-Quaternary record of Bulgaria and the origin and evolution of the family. Acta Zoologica Cracoviensia 45(Special Issue): 263-282. PDF fulltext
  • (2002): Cenozoic Birds of the World (Part 1: Europe). Ninox Press, Prague. ISBN 80-901105-3-8 PDF fulltext
  • (2003): Position of the palaeontological site Aven I des Abîmes de La Fage, at Noailles (Corrèze, France), in the European Pleistocene chronology. Boreas 32: 521–531. (HTML abstract)
  • (2005): Weichselian and Holocene bird remains from Komarowa Cave, Central Poland. Acta zoologica cracoviensia 48A(1-2): 43-65. PDF fulltext
  • (1999): A Vaskapu-barlang (Bükk-hegység) felső pleisztocén faunájának vizsgálata [Investigation of the Upper-Pleistocene fauna of Vaskapu-Cave (Bükk-mountain)]. Folia Historico Naturalia Musei Matraensis 23: 79-96 [Hungarian with English abstract]. PDF fulltext

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