Learn About the Unique Features of the Alaska State Bird

While Alaska is very much a part of the United States, there’s no denying that it’s unique. Not only is it physically detached from the rest of the country, but the landscape and climate are beautiful and intriguing. The same can be said for its beautiful state bird

While it may not be large and majestic like some, the Willow Ptarmigan is special to Alaska’s people, and it was chosen carefully and with much thought to be the official state bird. 

The bird is medium-sized and not aggressive to people, though they are fierce protectors of their young.


Known as the Willow Ptarmigan, the bid is stout, sociable, and unique. It became the state bird in 1955 as Alaska’s leaders prepared for statehood.

School children chose it that year, and it became official when Alaska was made the 49th state in 1960.

Scientific Classification

  • Scientific name: Lagopus lagopus
  • Family: Phasianidae – turkeys, pheasants, quail, partridges, and grouse. 
  • Subfamily: Grouse (tetraoninae)
  • Genus: Lagopus
  • Species: L. lagopus
  • Binomial name: Lagopus lagopus alascensis Swarth, 1926

The Willow Ptarmigan is certainly an interesting little creature with many distinctive features and interesting behavioral patterns. Read on to learn more about Alaska’s official state bird


The willow Ptarmigan has a unique and distinct look. It’s recognized right away by its solid black neck with just a small, bright red spot on its head. The rest of its body is white, with some black and grey coloring on its feathers. 

It’s also well known for its ability to camouflage in the presence of predators. In the summer, it changes its plumage to light brown, and it returns to the stark white in winter, which blends in nicely with the snow. 

Regardless of what color its coat is at any given time, its most distinctive features are the feathered toes. 

Males and females are around the same size, maturing at 35-44 centimeters/14-17 inches and a wingspan of about 60-65 centimeters/24-26 inches. 

Food and Diet

These birds have a varied diet that changes with the season. As their name suggests, willows are the main part of their diet. They eat these year-round. 

In the summer, they rely more heavily on leaves and flowers. However, during the winter and early spring, they rely on buds, catkins, and twigs to give them their required nutritional content. 

The birds are herbivorous for most of their lives. But babies often have difficulty digesting plants and similar material due to underdeveloped cecum. For this reason, juveniles may feed on some insects to stay properly nourished until they are fully grown. 


While Alaska has named the Willow Ptarmigan their official state bird, Alaska is far from the only place the bird resides. It’s native to many countries around the world: 

  1. United States 
  2. Canada
  3. Mongolia
  4. China
  5. Kazakhstan
  6. The Czech Republic
  7. Finland
  8. The Russian Federation
  9. Sweden
  10. Norway
  11. Estonia
  12. Latvia
  13. Germany
  14. Lithuania
  15. Ireland
  16. The United Kingdom
  17. Spain 

In terms of landscape, it prefers to occupy areas with subarctic and subalpine habitats. This includes sparse birch and pine forests, willow and alder thickets, heather moors, mountain slopes, and tundras. 

During the winter months, mothers may take their young to lower altitudes to find better shelter in valleys or more highly vegetated spaces. Even if they do, the adult males won’t follow them. They’ll stay in the main subalpine region for the entire year. Unlike many birds, it doesn’t fly south for the winter. 


The Willow Ptarmigan is most sociable during the winter. When it’s cold out, the birds will often roost in the snow, staying close together. They also tend to feed together.

However, when spring arrives and the breeding season begins, things change. 

Males will become much more territorial, claiming their space as the snow clears and the weather warms up. They will aggressively defend their space should any other male try to interfere or trespass. 

Once they’ve staked their claim on some territory, they’ll begin to court the females. The birds are largely known to be monogamous, only engaging with one partner at a time.

However, that behavior is not exclusive to the species, as some have been found to entertain multiple partners at once – it’s simply less common. 

Much like any other grouse species, only the female the Willow Ptarmigan stays at the nest and cares for the young. However, the male will participate in providing food for its brood and protecting them from predators and other threats. 

If a predator does come along, both the male and female will participate in defending their babies. They do this with a combination of dive-bombing the attackers and/or luring them away by pretending that a wing is broken. 

Unfortunately, despite the effort put in to protect the babies, only a small percentage will reach maturity. Only about 35% of chicks make it past 11 months, and even fewer make it to full adulthood. 

It’s For this reason, the population and flock sizes of Willow Ptarmigan are known to fluctuate greatly and often. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Alaska

What is Alaska’s state motto?

The state motto is “North to the future.” It officially became the motto in 1967 at the Alaskan Purchase Centennial and was coined by Richard Peter. It’s said to offer hope to citizens as it frames Alaska as a place of promise. 

What is Alaska famous for?

Alaska is a beautiful, unique, and intricate place that’s famous for many things. If we’re talking about wildlife, it’s well known for its salmon, caribous, bears, moose, bison, and puffins. 

In terms of landscape, Alaska is quite famous for its beautiful fjords, mountains, glaciers, and an abundance of exquisite rivers, lakes, and other waterways. 

It’s also famous for being the only state with coastlines on three separate oceans or seas: the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, and the Bering Sea. 

What is the state flower of Alaska?

Alaska’s state flower is the simple but beautiful forget-me-not. It’s a small perennial that finishes around 5 to 12 inches in height and is found in the alpine meadows. 

It was made the state flower as they are believed to symbolize the pioneers’ spirit as they were the ones who originally chose the flower to represent the new home they’d made. 

What is Alaska’s state food?

Alaska’s official state food is a fish: the Giant King Salmon. Alaska commercially harvests over one hundred million of these salmon each year.

It’s also a major attraction for dedicated fishers, making Alaska a vacation destination for those who love to fish. 

What is Alaska’s state tree?

Alaska’s state tree is the tall and impressive Sitka Spruce. It’s the tallest conifer in existence, with the summer fog and ocean air providing the perfect amount of moisture for maximum growth. 

Their large size provides excellent roosting space for birds like peregrine falcons and bald eagles. 

It’s also widely used for lumber to create pieces like ladders, masts, planks, sounding boards, oars, etc. 

How do you pronounce Alaska state bird?

The Willow Ptarmigan has a funny spelling and may be difficult for some to pronounce. The reality is that the P is silent. This means you pronounce the T instead: wil-low tar-mi-gan. 

Julian Goldie - Owner of ChiperBirds.com

Julian Goldie

I'm a bird enthusiast and creator of Chipper Birds, a blog sharing my experience caring for birds. I've traveled the world bird watching and I'm committed to helping others with bird care. Contact me at [email protected] for assistance.