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Stories from the Nature Park

All in white

A snowball with a beak

The ptarmigan is an almost invisible bird that causes surprise high up in the Alps and to which Zillertal is dedicating its own research project.

It is not easy when you are looking for something that can make itself almost invisible. But if you get the timing right, it can work out. In this case, the right time means: Anyone who wants to admire the Alpine ptarmigan with their own eyes must not only get up early, but also wait until the ptarmigan gets spring fever. When the bird's mating instinct takes over in April, we ask that you keep your distance.

Master of Disguise

In any case, it is definitely worth trying, because the ptarmigan is a fascinating animal. It has mastered its life above the tree line in many ways. For example, it is a master of disguise who can adapt its feathers to the environment during the seasons: In its white winter outfit, it is almost impossible to distinguish this fantastic bird from the snow, in spring, with its brown spotted spring robe, it merges visually with the rugged rocks over which it moves. It is not easyto see a ptarmigan. But some hikers may have heard it already – without knowing it. Because the call of the ptarmigan is reminiscent of the soft croaking of a frog.

"If you want
to see a ptarmigan,
you have to be up like
an early bird."

Willi Seifert, Nature Park Zillertal managing director

The ptarmigan is also a master in energy management. It lives very calmly and on low flame in winter. This is also necessary. Because in winter, when there is hardly any food, extreme energy management is essential. This characteristic can easily shock many ski tourers. Because the bird, which is almost invisible in the snow, often flutters away from someone approaching only at the last moment when its peace is disturbed. And when it gets particularly inhospitable in the depths of winter, the ptarmigans dig a tunnel in the snow and wait in a kind of alpine igloo for more favourable conditions.

Of the four species of grouse found in Tyrol, the ptarmigan lives on the top floor of the Alps – it aims high. Because it has to. Because if it gets too warm, this bird will become stressed. Its colleagues in the grouse family, namely the wood grouse, black grouse and hazel grouse, prefer to live in lower-lying regions on the other hand. Why does the German name for grouse (Raufußhühner) translate to 'raw foot chickens'? Because their feet are feathered right up to their toes. When the ptarmigan goes in search of food in spring once it comes out of its winter rest, it calmly explores the surroundings. However, this is not out of laziness, but caution. Because its enemies are birds of prey from the air as well as foxes and martens on the ground. Moving around in camou!aged feathers in almost slow motion increases its chances of survival considerably. In Japan and Mongolia, ptarmigans are revered as a symbol of the sacred mountain world. In Zillertal, these fascinating survival artists have not yet been canonised, but they are respected and protected as an invaluable part of the picturesque mountain scener

Ptarmigans in Zillertal

Like almost no other bird species, the ptarmigan stands for the rugged high mountains of the Zillertal. A research project seeks to find out more about their living habits and distribution in Tyrol by using feathers and droppings, among other things. The movements of the Zillertal ptarmigan population will be systematically monitored and recorded over a period of two years in the High Alps Nature Park Zillertaler Alps.

Characteristics: The rock ptarmigan can grow up to 40 centimetres long and weigh 750 grams.

Habitat: In alpine high altitudes above 1,800 metres, in open terrain and above the tree line.

Way of living: Ptarmigans hibernate in groups, but they disperse at the beginning of mating season (April).

Image: Mauritius Images!minden Pictures and text: Wolfgang M. Gran
Zillertal magazine Winter 2020/21


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