February 19, 2015

Gung Hey Fat Choy: the Year of the... Ptarmigan?

Today is the official start of the Chinese lunar new year, and depending on who you talk to, it is either the year of the sheep, the goat, or the ram.

On today's snowshoeing trip, we didn't see any hoofed mammals, but we did see a most extraordinary bird, and it is a worthy Rocky Mountain substitute for this year's "official" animal.

It was a white-tailed ptarmigan, and it can boast many of the same features that the Chinese attribute to the goat / sheep / ram:

  • Sheep are "gentle": ptarmigans stay alive by munching on willow buds.  How gentle is that?
  • Sheep are "mild-mannered": when was the last time you heard about a ptarmigan going postal?
  • Sheep are "shy": ptarmigans epitomize shy.  It's their life goal.  With their cryptic feathers, they blend right into the background.  In the winter, they are completely white except for the black eyes and beak.  In the summer, they sport feathers that look like rocks and lichens.

    White-tailed ptarmigan in fall, moulting from its summer plumage

  • Sheep are "stable": check!  By growing extra feathers on their feet, ptarmigans have stable snowshoes to keep them upright and supported while they walk around in the wintry landscape

    Feathered feet on a ptarmigan that's being banded for a research project.  Photo courtesy of Kathy Martin 
  • Sheep are "brimming with a strong sense of kindheartedness and justice": okay, four out of five ain't bad!
Gung Hey Fat Choy, everyone, and enjoy whatever wildlife you get to see here in the park!