Meet the Rare, ‘Beautiful’ Birds That Thrive in Snow and Are at Risk Because of Climate Change

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan as threatened under the Endangered Species Act this month

A round bird with mottled brown feathers on a rock
The Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is one of the few animals that spends its entire life at high elevations. USFWS / A. LaValle

The Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is specialized to dwell in high alpine environments—that is to say, it thrives in cold weather.

These rotund birds, which each weigh about a pound, use their feathered feet like snowshoes to float across the top of the snow in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. In the winter, their mottled brown feathers give way to snowy white plumage, which helps camouflage them against the powder. They eat plants that grow at high elevations, like saxifrages and dwarf huckleberries. And when temperatures rise above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to overheat and must pant to cool down.

But as the planet heats up because of human-caused climate change, these birds are in trouble. Shorter winters and hotter summers are making it difficult for them to survive, even high atop the peaks of Washington and British Columbia, Canada. Their habitat may disappear entirely.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to protect them from that fate by listing them as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The federal agency announced its decision this month, citing climate change as the primary reason.

“The Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is likely to be in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is solely due to the projected effects of climate change, especially increasing temperatures and a loss of the conditions that support suitable alpine habitat.”

A larger bird standing on a rock, with a smaller bird on a nearby rock
Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigans are monogamous, and females lay clutches of five to seven eggs. USFWS / A. LaValle

Unless something changes, the birds are projected to lose up to 95 percent of their alpine tundra habitat in the coming decades, per the agency. They live above the treeline, or the imaginary delineation in high-elevation environments above which trees cannot grow. But as temperatures rise, the treeline is creeping upward—and shrinking the ptarmigan’s already small habitat in the process. They cannot simply move to new habitats, as other high-elevation regions are also experiencing the same changes. And at a certain point, there’s nowhere else to go.

“You might think, well, species like these—the ptarmigan or the marmots or whatever it is—can just go uphill where it’s as cold as they like it,” Washington state climatologist Nick Bond told the Seattle Times’ Isabella Breda last year. “But you kind of run out of real estate, maybe there isn’t the kind of vegetation to munch on.”

The birds are also affected more directly by rising temperatures, since their bodies have a low tolerance for heat. Diminishing snowpack—and the related decrease in meltwater—likewise threatens their survival. That’s because ptarmigans prefer to spend their summers in wet meadows, according to a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity, which first petitioned for them to be listed in 2010.

In addition, the Pacific Northwest is also experiencing more “rain-on-snow” events in the winter, which create a hard, icy crust atop the powder that may prevent the birds from roosting in burrows.

“These beautiful winter birds are immediately threatened by our warming world,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, says in the nonprofit’s statement.

A bird with brown and white feathers standing in the shade near a boulder
Their mottled brown feathers give way to white plumage in the winter, which helps them blend in with the snow. USFWS / Jamie Hanson

More broadly, the listing of the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan represents an “alarm bell,” as well as a call to action to conserve species “before population declines become irreversible,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency notes its decision comes just a few months after the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which took effect in December 1973. The listing of the ptarmigan “reflects the growing extinction crisis and highlights the importance of the law,” the agency writes.

Other animals that live at high elevations are also in peril due to climate change, including wolverines and American pikas.

Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigans are one of the few creatures that spend their entire lives at high elevations. They’re typically born in clutches of five to seven eggs to monogamous parents. Once they reach maturity, the birds are typically 12 inches long. Though they have wings, they spend most of their time on the ground, wandering among flowering plants and shrubs above the treeline.

They’re found only in western North America, where they inhabit the Cascade Mountains from Mount Adams in Washington to southern British Columbia. They’re one of five total subspecies of white-tailed ptarmigan; the others live in Colorado, Alaska, Vancouver Island in Canada and the northern Rockies. The Mount Rainier birds are the first of the group to gain federal protection.

In Washington, state officials estimate roughly 1,000 of the birds remain, but they say more research is needed to fully understand their abundance. Birders, in particular, are acutely aware of their rarity.

“It’s one of the most challenging breeding birds in Washington, one that requires a fair amount of determined effort to lay eyes on,” says Charlie Wright, a birder in Tacoma, to KUOW’s John Ryan.

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