Wondernose: What bird has three different sets of plumage for three different seasons?

by Rebecca Martin | Dec 8, 2021 | 0 comments

You and I consider it normal to own one coat for winter, one for spring and fall, and one for summer. But that’s not so common for the birds. Yes, a few birds do have two sets of plumage, but three is rare. Not only does our mystery bird have three “coats,” but the male and female (called cock and hen) also have different plumages. So it’s quite a chore to describe this bird’s coloring.

Let’s start with the plumage worn by the cock during spring and summer. It’s a mixture of brownish yellow and gray. The hen, during the warm seasons, has more yellow, with black markings.

Then in the autumn, both cock and hen are more gray, with the hen being the lighter of the two. When winter comes—guess what! Both are primarily white except for the black tail, eye, and beak.

That’s right, Wondernose. These different “outfits” work very well as camouflage during the different seasons. A white bird wading through the snow isn’t very visible.

Since our bird lives only in the world’s northernmost latitudes, often there’s some snow in the fall and spring too, or even in the summer. So a mottled coat is just right.

I marvel at these birds. What do they eat, anyway? What is there to eat during a snowbound Arctic winter? Well, they scratch away at the snow in order to find moss, bark, and lichens—meager fare indeed. They spend a lot of time burrowing in the snow to keep warm. Summertime brings a somewhat better diet, rounded out with berries, insects, green shoots, and leaves. But I still think it takes a special kind of bird to survive in these latitudes.

Another special feature of our mystery bird is its “snowshoes.” Unlike most birds, this one’s legs, and even the feet, are feathered. These extra feathers help a lot to get around in the snow.

Yes, Wondernose, these are chicken-like birds, about the same size as your barnyard chickens. They can and do fly, but they spend a lot of time on the ground. Eggs are laid in nests that are mere hollows scraped in the soil.

Is this a partridge? No—but you’re getting close, Wondernose. Our mystery bird is certainly very much like a partridge. In fact, in northern Asia there’s a bird called a Snow Partridge, which resembles our mystery bird in many ways. But the one I’ve described lives in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.

Ptarmigan! There you have it. And don’t worry about pronouncing that initial “P.” It’s silent.

Partridges—grouse—quail—ptarmigan—the water gets pretty murky as we try to differentiate between these birds. Because, you see, about the only differences between a ptarmigan and a grouse are those feathered toes and the winter plumage. Strictly speaking, a ptarmigan is actually a type of grouse!

“Grouse” is the name you and I use most often for the chicken-like game birds of our area—the most common being the Ruffed Grouse. As you know, the cocks have a “ruff” of feathers around their necks.

But the puzzling thing is that in the New England states, people tend to call the grouse, partridges! Other grouse found in Canada and the U.S.A. are the Prairie Chickens, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the Spruce Grouse. Those last ones are common in northern areas, but not as far north as the ptarmigan.

Over in Europe, too, they call their chicken-like game birds partridges rather than grouse. And to make matters really complicated, one kind called the Hungarian Partridge was introduced in Alberta in 1908. Today they can be found in North Central USA, and South Central Canada.

Finally, you also wonder about the quail. Okay, I’ll tackle the question of how they differ from the other game birds. I think the best description would be to say they’re like grouse (or partridges) only smaller. Worldwide there are some 130 species of quail! A common one you may know is the Bobwhite, named for its call.

Just to really mix you up, Wondernose, in Mexico there’s a quail that’s sometimes called the Long-tailed Wood-Partridge. (Its other name is Tree Quail.) And, although I’ve stated that quails are smaller than partridges, this long-tailed one is practically as big as a grouse.

So, Wondernose, I’ve taken you through a maze of ptarmigans, partridges, grouse, and quail—and I rather wonder how much of it has stayed in your head!

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