Q. My husband told me about a chicken like bird in Alaska. He said it sounds like ‘parmigan’, but he’s not sure. I’ve looked everywhere I can think of and can’t find any reference. Do you know about this bird? Thanks. -Elnora
A. Oh, sure, I do know about that bird. You are referring to the Willow Ptarmigan. It is our state bird.. It’s a strange word, eh? The ‘P’ is silent…so you just say ‘tar-me-gun’. The village of Chicken, Alaska was meant to be Ptarmigan, Alaska, but the founders of the village didn’t know how to spell ptarmigan, so it was called Chicken instead. I’ll tell you a bit about the ptarmigan. Then I’ll tell you of our encounter with the bird. (or would that be pbird?) =:o)
There are 3 kinds of ptarmigan. All are found in Alaska, in different areas. They are Willow, Rock and White Tailed Ptarmigan. They look just like small grouse, weighing from 10 and half ounces to about 1 and half pounds.
The Willow Ptarmigan live closest to timberline, Rocks on the middle slopes and low ridges and the White Tailed near snowfields and glaciers. They migrate back and forth in an area of about a hundred miles, forming into ‘flocks’, then dispersing, and reforming again. Males are very territorial and aggressive in the spring, carving out their own ‘space’ and rushing at each other with a series of aerial chases and making a gargling, croaking, and screaming sound. (sort of like Aunt Bessie when Uncle Bill comes home a little ‘under the weather’! )
They are nomadic in winter and very sociable as they move from one patch of shelter and food to another. It is just around nesting time that they get testy and territorial.
Ptarmigans eat berries, seeds, flowers, bugs, caterpillars, willow buds, catkins, whatever they can find. They make very good eating themselves, although most people just use the breasts as there isn’t much meat elsewhere. You don’t hear anyone at the table saying, “I want the drumstick!” for instance. They are easy and fun to hunt, if you like that sort of thing. Now to my own anecdotal experience of an encounter with the pbird ptarmigan!
Years ago we lived 300 miles away in the Copper River Basin. My husband worked in Anchorage during the week, coming home on the weekends. Okay, it wasn’t ‘ideal’ but it put food on the table. In more ways than one. One winter Friday evening he was coming along the Glenn Highway, when suddenly something white flashed into his headlights and then made a loud thump on the front of his car. He pulled over and got out and there lying on his front bumper were 3 lovely, but hapless, snowwhite ptarmigan, quite dead. Although we aren’t hunters really, he wasn’t about to waste this gift from outta nowhere, and so he brought them home. I dug out my wild meat cookbook and we enjoyed our first (and I guess only) meal of herb browned ptarmigan breast in cream gravy. Yum!
I enjoyed chatting with you, Elnora. If I can help you with anything else, write me again. – BJ