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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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Canachites canadensis osgoodi [BISHOP]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A small, dark-colored grouse known locally as spruce grouse or "fool" hen. The male is black, gray and white with a small red eye comb. The female is barred all around the body with the above colors, but with a large admixture of rusty brown. Length, 15 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—Good characters for distinguishing this species are the small size, the dark coloration, the general black and white color of the male and the brownish female strongly banded all around the body.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds in the interior of Alaska. In Mount McKinley Park, we found the Alaska spruce grouse was rare and restricted to the heaviest stands of spruce timber along the extreme northern boundary of the park.

HABITS.—The only individual of this species which we encountered in 1926 was an adult male (No. 8927 G. M. W.) which was discovered on July 27, at 1,600 feet elevation near the junction of Savage River and Fish Creek. It was on bare open ground amid the deepest part of the spruce forest. Park rangers reported that they usually see one or two spruce hens each year, but that they are always rare. Although especially sought for, John Anderson reported that he was able to find only one spruce grouse in 4 years (1926-30). However, the birds have increased. During the winter of 1931, the ranger stationed at the Kantishna Ranger Station, near Wonder Lake, reported them as being fairly common in the spruce woods there. At this same locality on August 8, 1932, I found a family consisting of a mother and her six nearly grown young, feeding in an open meadow beside a rambling brook, the course of which traversed the dense spruce woods. When alarmed, the mother flew up into a spruce tree and gave a series of warning, clucking notes. The young grouse flew in several directions perching in nearby spruce trees from whence they answered their mother's calls. All of these grouse sought shelter by perching well up in the trees under thick overhanging branches close to the main trunk where they were well hidden and extremely difficult to see.

From our observations and from data we have obtained, it seems that the periodic cycle of abundance in the spruce grouse occurs a season or two ahead of the peak of abundance in the willow ptarmigan. I am inclined to believe that the disease which produces a decrease in the numbers of the one may account for the periodic reduction in both species.

Lagopus lagopus alascensis [SWARTH]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A grouse slightly larger than the ruffed grouse of the eastern United States. It is white in winter; its general color is reddish brown in summer, with belly, legs, and flight feathers of wings white. The feet are feathered to the ends of the toes. It has an orange red erectile comb over the eye which is especially noticeable in the male birds. The females are smaller and more somber colored than the males. Length, 15 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—It is an Arctic grouse; throughout the year, its wing feathers are white and its tail feathers black When alarmed and flushed, the ptarmigan cocks fly up with rapid wing beats. As they fly off cackling hoarsely—sounds which remind one of an alarm clock running down—the white of their wings shows. During the summer, male ptarmigan, by their repeated crowing and cackling, often awaken park visitors at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning.

DISTRIBUTION.—Ptarmigans breed in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere. The willow ptarmigan is the one species of ptarmigan to be encountered at lower elevations throughout the park, and individuals of this species are most numerous in willow thickets along streams. We found Savage River, just above the main transportation camp, an excellent place to discover and study them. This species is subject to great fluctuations in numbers from year to year. They may be abundant in a locality one season and almost entirely absent there after one or two unfavorable winters. Following a cyclic period of scarcity, ptarmigan were regaining their numbers in 1932.

HABITS.—The Alaska ptarmigan is an Arctic grouse which has the distinction of turning white in winter and brown in summer. The sight of this bird excites more interest on the part of the average visitor than any other bird in the park.

Since these birds do not occur in any of our other national parks, the opportunity to see and study them in Mount McKinley Park should not be overlooked. They may he found, if looked for, in willow thickets along the larger streams, and especially along the Savage and Sanctuary Rivers. The Alaska ptarmigan is primarily a bird of the lowlands and does not occur in any great numbers above timber line.

By early June, at which time visitors begin to arrive in the park, the male ptarmigan has already started to acquire its nuptial plumage. On May 24, at 6 o'clock in the evening, I heard a male ptarmigan "crow", and looking out from camp, I saw what appeared to be a lump of snow on the flattened crown of a spruce tree about 200 yards distant. However, the binoculars revealed that this supposed lump of snow was in fact the white body of a male ptarmigan. The nuptial plumage of the male consists of chestnut feathers on the head and neck, with a few brownish feathers interspersed among the feathers of the back. Aside from these changes, the body feathers are still pure white. The male ptarmigan, as soon as he acquires his wedding garb (fig. 21) begins gradually to assume the brown summer dress, which is worn for only a few weeks, since it is soon necessary for him again to change into the pure white plumage which is worn by him during the entire winter. It will thus be seen that the male ptarmigan spends a goodly portion of his time and energy during the summer changing his clothes.

male Alaska ptarmigan
Figure 21.—The cock Alaska ptarmigan in nuptial plumage.
Photograph taken May 25, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5112.

The female ptarmigan is not burdened by so many changes. She molts directly from the white winter coat into a brown house dress or working suit (fig. 22) which she wears during the entire summer. There seems to be a perfectly good reason for the somber garb and Quakerlike dress of the female, because it is she who remains on the nest, incubating the eggs and protecting them from the prying eyes of numerous robbers. Later, this inconspicuous dress of the female is also very important when she is hovering and brooding her chicks.

female Alaska ptarmigan
Figure 22.—The mother Alaska ptarmigan in her brown summer dress.
Photograph taken June 6, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5130.

By watching the male ptarmigan in the treetop we found that he was standing guard over his brooding mate, and, by waiting and watching, we discovered the hen ptarmigan when she slipped off her nest to feed. As soon as we started after the female, the male ptarmigan flew down from his perch and endeavored to decoy us away from her. The buffy brown hen fed hurriedly along, keeping in the depressions, with head, body, and tail all kept low to the ground. In contrast to this, the cock strutted about with neck and tail extended so as to attract as much attention as possible. We thought that by watching the hen we would be able to follow her back to her nest, but she eluded us. The next day we were on hand and had the privilege of witnessing the courtship of these very interesting birds. While the female was busily feeding, the cock ptarmigan spread his tail to the utmost, flexed his wings downward, and strutted in circles—just like a diminutive turkey gobbler—about his mate.

On May 21 a ptarmigan's nest was located near the transportation company's main camp. This nest was placed in a bunch of brush, right out in the open. It was merely a depression wallowed out in the soft, reddish moss, which covered the ground at this point and was almost the exact color of the female ptarmigan. Brooding ptarmigan are notoriously tame and confiding. This particular female allowed us to take pictures of her on the nest at arm's length, and we finally reached out and gently stroked her back; even then she did not seem to be in the least disturbed.

Ordinarily the mother ptarmigan left her nest at 6 o'clock in the morning to secure a hasty breakfast which, by following her about, we found consisted of succulent green willow leaves and an occasional insect. While the hen ptarmigan was off her nest we took occasion to examine it and found that there were nine eggs (fig. 23) slightly smaller than those laid by a bantam hen. However, the ptarmigan eggs were irregularly marked with dark brownish—almost black—lines and splotches. After her hurried breakfast, the female ptarmigan waded out into a shallow stream, where she drank thirstily. The hen ptarmigan did not dare remain long off her nest, because there were numerous robbers in the form of long-tailed jaegers and short-billed gulls which made a regular practice of seeking for and destroying the eggs of other birds. The male ptarmigan does not abandon his mate, but seems to realize that his garb is so conspicuous that if he remains too near the nest he will betray his mate and endanger their treasures in the nest. Consequently he retires to a little thicket, about 50 yards from the nest, where he occupies a roosting place on the ground which is well screened and hidden from view.

Alaska ptarmigan nest with eggs
Figure 23.—The Alaska ptarmigan's nest contained nine eggs.
Photograph taken June 1, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5148.

The thieving gulls usually work in pairs or trios. We watched them daily as they flew about, keeping within 5 or 6 feet of the ground, searching for nests and eggs. One day, the gulls found the ptarmigan nest we had been watching. The fact that we had molested the nest may have aided the gulls in finding it. Having located the eggs, they would have made short shrift of them, had it not been for the watchful, brooding female. They could not rob the nest directly, but first one and then another of the gulls would swoop down and try to crowd the hen ptarmigan over to one side of it so as to expose an egg. The third gull would then swoop in and try to secure the prized morsel. However, as soon as the female ptarmigan saw the gulls approaching, she uttered a peculiar cry for help. The cock ptarmigan at once flew to her assistance and, by flying directly into and knocking down the gulls, soon drove them away. It was interesting and gratifying to see how easily the cock ptarmigan was able to drive off the gulls.

The period of incubation, in this particular instance, was found to be between 24 and 25 days. Even though the gulls knew where this ptarmigan nest was located, the eggs were not destroyed. Eight out of the nine eggs hatched. The downy young chicks of the ptarmigan were very sturdy. They were able to walk soon after hatching, so that the entire brood left the nest 3 hours after the first egg had hatched. In general appearance the chicks resembled diminutive turkey chicks, and being streaked with brown blended so well with the vegetation that it was often difficult to count them when they squatted in the grass (fig. 24) at only arm's length from us.

Alaska ptarmigan chicks
Figure 24.—The eight Alaska ptarmigan chicks are difficult to see, as the reader will find if he tries to count them.
Photograph taken June 15, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5140.

The mother ptarmigan brooded her chicks at regular and frequent intervals. She had a well-defined vocabulary which the chicks recognized and obeyed instantly. For example, when danger threatened, she uttered a warning note, a harsh "ke-ouk—ke-ouk." When the chicks were all safely brooded under her, she gave a soft, purring, "hush-a-bye" note which reminded us very much of that given by a domestic hen under similar circumstances. The cock was usually silent, but gave a hoarse, throaty "c-o-a-k", repeated several times in succession, whenever danger threatened.

The chicks were exceedingly active, running about, often leading their parents in their search for small insects and bugs, which were found to comprise more than 95 percent of their food.

The male ptarmigan accompanied his mate and helped in the care of the chicks, although he did not brood or hover them. The solicitude of the cock ptarmigan for his chicks is well known. We have been told of an instance in which a bull caribou had stumbled onto a ptarmigan brood and been put to flight by the onslaught of the enraged male ptarmigan. In another instance a large grizzly bear was reported to have been driven away from a brood of young ptarmigan in a similar manner. We were skeptical of such stories, until, on June 23, I came across a hen ptarmigan with her brood of small young. Wishing to make a close examination of one of the chicks, I rushed forward to grab one. Just as I reached over, a willow bush in front of me "exploded" and the male ptarmigan flew directly into my face, knocking my glasses to one side as he slapped my face with his beating wings. The bird then dropped to the ground, but returned immediately for a second attack, flying directly into my face. But this time I was ready for him, and succeeded in capturing him with my bare hands. I took the bird back to camp—which was nearby—photographed him, and then returned him to his family. Much to my surprise, when turned loose he wanted to fight again. I thought that such a valiant bird should be perpetuated, and I therefore backed off and left him in command of the field (fig. 25).

male Alaska ptarmigan
Figure 25.—We left the valiant male Alaska ptarmigan in full command of the field.
Photograph taken June 6, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5117.

Lagopus rupestris kelloggae [GRINNELL]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A ptarmigan or Arctic grouse of medium size with a slim body and black tail feathers. In winter, white except for black tail and distinct black stripe extending from the base of the bill through and behind the eye. In summer, brown and grey with grey tones predominating; distinctly barred. The legs are feathered to the toes. Length, 13 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—The Kellogg rock ptarmigan is smaller than the Alaska ptarmigan and larger than the white-tailed ptarmigan. The black tail separates it from the white-tailed ptarmigan at all seasons. In winter, the black stripe through the eye is distinctive. It may he distinguished from the Alaska ptarmigan in summer by the smaller size, proportionately smaller bill, greyer color, and a darkish spot in front of the eye.

DISTRIBUTION.—The rock ptarmigan is more Arctic in its distribution than either the Alaska or the white-tailed ptarmigan; it is found in northern North America and Greenland. In Mount McKinley National Park we found the summer home of this species to be the rocky shoulders of the mountain.

HABITS.—It was our experience, both in 1926 and in 1932, to find rock ptarmigan in the summer breeding at middle altitudes in the McKinley region, usually around 4,000 feet elevations.

We saw this species first in 1926 on May 20, at an altitude of 3,800 feet, on a rocky ridge near Savage River. The male of the pair was decidely conspicuous, both on the brown tundra and on the gray granite rocks. At a distance, he appeared to be entirely white, especially as he stood on the crest of a ridge. We approached within 50 feet of the bird; then we could see that a few brown feathers were appearing on his head and neck. The female of this pair was much more completely in the brown summer plumage at the time. She remained well hidden in the dwarf alpine willows. We visited the pair again on May 26; the female was very nervous and kept up a continual "clucking"; at times, when closely approached, she gave a low warning "whine", which is quite different from the warning note of the female Alaska ptarmigan.

On May 27, 1926, we found a male ptarmigan standing guard on top of a rock pile, just above the refuge of two hoary marmots and a collared pika. It was our experience that there was a mutual advantage thus gained by these three species, since any one of the three upon sensing danger would sound an alarm. Although this alarm probably was intended only for their own kin, it was nevertheless a warning many times to the other species as well.

On June 24, 1926, two male rock ptarmigan were found hiding in a patch of dwarf willow high up on a rocky ridge near the head of Savage River. In 1932, I found that rock ptarmigan were entirely absent from the areas near Savage River where we had found them repeatedly in 1926.

On June 30, 1932, high up on the south side of Sable Pass, we found a male and two females feeding together. They were out in the open. The two females were in complete summer plumage while the male was still more than half white. The male kept trying to lead us away from the females. A pair of Pacific golden plover and two pairs of Baird's sandpipers were found near these rock ptarmigan; the breeding condition of the specimens which we collected indicated that all three species were nesting on the dry, gray rocky tundra nearby.

On July 8, 1932, at Stony Hill, in a high pass, two families of young rock ptarmigan, which were barely able to fly, were encountered feeding with their parents along the edge of the wet tundra. A downy male chick was collected.

In both 1926 and 1932 ten Alaska ptarmigan were seen to one rock ptarmigan. This, in our experience, is a fair expression of the relative abundance of these two species in the McKinley region.

Lagopus leucurus peninsularis [CHAPMAN]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A small grouselike bird. The toes are feathered to the base of the toenails. It is white all over in winter and is gray above and soiled white beneath in summer. Length, 12.5 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—It is the smallest of the three species of ptarmigan. The tail feathers are white instead of black as are the tail feathers of the rock and of the Alaska ptarmigan.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds in the mountains of northern North America, both in Alaska and in Canada. In the park, we found these birds, during the summer months, high up on the mountain tops, at Copper Mountain and at the head of Savage River. When seen they were always on barren rocky ground near snowslides.

HABITS.—On June 27, 1926, while we were wading up an icy streamlet near the very headwaters of Savage River, Mr. Wright discovered a male white-tailed ptarmigan standing motionless on a snowslide within 15 feet of us. Realizing that he was discovered the ptarmigan ran across the snowslide, but as soon as he reached a gravel bar he stopped and again tried to hide by remaining motionless. The dark barring on the back of this bird blended so well with the surroundings that he was effectively concealed except when he stretched his neck in order to get a better view of the intruders. A few yards farther on we found another male bird of the same species, also near a snowslide. Neither of these cock white-tailed ptarmigan made any noise when alarmed, as do male rock and Alaska ptarmigan. They both tried to escape by running instead of by flying. One of the birds hid for a few minutes in the shadow of a rock.

On July 14, 1926, we climbed to the summit of one of the lower peaks near Copper Mountain. A short distance from the summit, at an elevation of 5,000 feet, we found a solitary male white-tailed ptarmigan amidst broken rock at a point well above the limit of plant life.

In 1932, not a single bird of the species could be found in the McKinley region although I hunted in many suitable places for them. It would seem that the species is rare in this vicinity, since during the nesting season of 1926 only 1 adult white-tailed ptarmigan was seen, to at least 100 Alaska and 10 Kellogg's ptarmigan.

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