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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ptarmigan tales......


The village is surrounded by ptarmigan. They fascinate me.

We went on another short ride today into the mountains. The dogs bounded around us, tongues steaming in the air, legs pumping vigorously to keep up with us in the deep snow. Today it hit a very warm 0 degrees (warm in comparison to or normal temps here!). It was a perfect day for a ride.


They are such odd creatures. They perch in the willow bushes, furry heavily clawed feet gripping the swaying branches. They carefully nip the remaining willows buds from the skeletal remains of the plant. Their presence declares this land to be a rich land, as they are only found where food is abundant. And where they are abundant so are the predators.

I grew up in a place with a smaller amount of ptarmigan. They are there but not as numerous as they are here. I remember hiking in the mountains here and finding piles of ptarmigan feathers here and there, their gleaming white feathers high contrast to the earthy rich sod. Finally I thought to ask my other half what it was all about. He turned to me and in his "teaching" voice he declared...."they explode." And then he walked away. I sat there and blinked a few times. The image of a ptarmigan exploding in a burst of feathers and furry feet.

Later I got mad at him. But they REALLY look like they exploded. I would repeat this sage knowledge to children and they would always roll their eyes at me, not as gullible as I was.

He decided to get me a ptarmigan tonight. I had told him I always wanted to try to eat one. They were a huge staple in ancient diets, and I had never had the honor of actually trying them. He had a .22 pistol with him. He turned the snow-machine towards the willows, staying a good distance away from them. Some ravens huddled on the tundra noticed us and took flight, and soon we had a fan club high above us. They loved following humans as it almost always meant an easy meal.

It didn't take long to spot them. We saw a few white bobbing bodies high up in the brush. He parked the snow-machine, and turned it off. I clicked at the dogs to keep them from noticing our prey. In two shots he got one from 25 yards away. The other ptarmigan fled like hovercrafts across the icy ground. Of course they only went a few feet, they are not very smart birds and they cannot fly very far, so they rely on blending in with the snow for defense. It works well as long as they don't move. It took us a few minutes to find our fallen bird as he was very well camouflaged. The pups tried to steal the bird, more to play with it rather than to eat it I think. When they are hyper EVERYTHING looks like a toy.

We made it home and I started to pluck the bird. I learned something about them. They did not have the "normal" plumage. Actually they did but it was just for looks. Under the normal feathers were these incredibly dense and fluffy feathers, which acted a lot like fur. In a few minutes I had the fuzz in my eyes, up my nose and my shirt looked like it had sprouted mold. He laughed at my complaints of course, but to make me feel better he told me stories of growing up eating ptarmigans. They would have to pluck 20 at a time sometimes. He reached over and quickly removed the tail feathers in one handful. You always take those off first, he says. Why? No one told him why, but it was an ancient sign of respect that he always did.

We removed the sack on the chest that held all of the willow buds. The room filled with the smell of plants. He showed me how to clean and inflate it and hang it to dry. His mother would do that for them when they were kids, they used it as a balloon or if you left some of the willow buds to dry inside you could use it as a rattle.

He smiled a lot.

ptarmigan are such odd wonderful creatures.

It tasted like willows. An odd mix of plant and meat. I decided I liked it.

Their odd furry clawed feet

Can you spot the ptarmigan in this photo?

Very happy dogs.

The sun is slowly returning.


  1. The clawed feet remind me of a cat's. Very interesting.

  2. I am happy to read your ptarmigan post and its look at the plenty of the land. I can remember the gentle chatter of ptarmigan in the Killik Valley on a cold winter morning. We arose from our tent to their feeding. They flew in uncountable numbers to settle like waves on a beach of willow branches, with the gently audible sound of plenty in their feeding all across the valley.

  3. Mmmmm I gotta tray ptarmigan some time they sound pretty tasty, and hay! Feathers for art-work!

  4. We ate ptarmigan by the bucket load when I was a kid living outside North Pole. My dad told us that he sometimes killed five or six birds with a single shot from his 16 gauge shotgun. We also ate a lot of snow shoe rabbit, as well. I had no idea we were poor. How could you feel poor when there were five or six birds and a couple of rabbits on the table for Sunday dinner.

  5. Such good memories... We would spend the days hunting Ptarmigan. Such good soup... We would like to send you a package. If we send it to Nuna Inua USPS general delivery PT Hope will they know who to give it to ? Bye for now :0)

  6. Hello Cammilroy. Thanks. I have moved to Anaktuvuk Pass. If you address it to Rainey, General Delivery, Anaktuvuk will get to me.

    What is it?

  7. OK ... It may take a week or so but it is on its way... :0)

  8. My wife said to tell you ... Goodies Boxes For you and your Man :0)

  9. ah okay. I hope your address or name is on the box! We can trade goodies :)