I’ve been putting it off for a while now, but the snow in the sky demands that I get into my loft and find my bin of winter outer clothes. The season demands it, and the cold wind whistling through the alpine is pointing me towards my personal home environment, what my wife calls "the one-piece clown suit": a canary yellow and stoplight red one-piece Gore-Tex suit that just screams function before fashion. With that on, I can’t be missed, but I’m certain to be comfortable.
In the natural world, however, my complete lack of fashion sense might just make me a target for something other than laughter: there are times when it’s downright imperative that a critter blend in with its surroundings. Take the ptarmigan family for example – in particular, Whistler’s most common member of it, the White-tailed Ptarmigan ( Lagopus leucurus ). Now there’s an example of function and fashion being equally important, no matter what time of the year.
After a summer season of foraging for high quality, mostly veggie cuisine like the seeds, buds, twigs, catkins, berries, and bulblets of dwarf alpine plants, a White-tailed Ptarmigan can weigh in at nearly 400 grams – a worthy morsel for those predatorily inclined. Since ptarmigan are about as good at running as they are at spelling – and don’t fly a great deal better – they should make pretty easy pickings. But our little critter has a trick up its tiny sleeve – its plumage.
In the fall, as the snow flies, ptarmigans put on a sweater of a different colour, choosing a rather quick transition to a fetching all-white ensemble. As the winter alpine environment can be very featureless and revealing, our little friends do their best to blend in.
Ptarmigans tend to limit their winter foraging to evenings, preferring to hide in small holes under dwarf willow or rocks during the daylight hours. In this respect, they are virtually impossible to pick out when motionless. On numerous occasions, I have observed a ptarmigan on the move in daylight hours freezing at the first sign of a predator and successfully evading detection, in spite of being quite clearly out in the open.
And as for me, well I’m the one chuckling and toasty in the flash one-piece clown suit.
Monthly Bird Walk — The next bird walk will take place Saturday, Dec. 4th and will start at the later fall/winter time of 8 a.m. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.
Written by: Mitch Sulkers