The Raicho; Japan's Well-Loved Grouse

Nature is a prevailing theme in aspects of Japanese culture. Their society honors it and takes pride in creating and maintaining environments that sustain Eco-balances of nature, such as gardens and natural parks. Aside from acknowledging the flora and formations that occur in their country, they also acknowledge the animals that have existed for generations upon generations in their country, no matter how large or small that animal may be.

A symbol that is connected to the Alpine areas of Japan, for example, is the Japanese Grouse. The Japanese find these birds very endearing because of their quirky nature, as – unlike other birds – they don’t fly away when you get near them. Here’s all you need to know (and more) about the Japanese Grouse; a bird species (not a goose) that has been around even before the last ice age occurred.

By Alpsdake [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

One of Japan’s Protected Bird Species

You may recognize this bird as its other term, “snow chicken” because it has many variants around the world, but the Japanese have their own nickname for it which is “raicho”. Written in Japanese as “雷鳥”, it translates to “Thunderbird” from kanji. Before it was known as “raicho”, it was called “rai no tori”. However, that changed in the Edo Period. 

The Japanese grouse can be found around Japan’s Prefectures of Toyama, Gifu, and Nagano; mostly in the mountainous areas (around the Japan Alps) – and is also stated as their official bird. Although its presence is more obvious around altitudes of the north (thus also having a reputation of being called an “alpine bird”), it is protected all throughout the entire archipelago of Japan.

Facts About the Japanese Grouse

The Japanese grouse is most commonly known to be a rock ptarmigan, which is a gamebird of medium measurement. Its body measures around 34-36 cm long, while its tail measures in at around 8 cm. Its wingspan usually falls within the range of 54 to 60 cm. It is not to be mistaken with the willow ptarmigan, which is slightly bigger in size.

The Japanese grouse’s chirp or song is very coarse and comparable to that of a croak of a frog, especially for males. Their habitat usually is higher, barren terrain. While living out in the wild, they have a lifespan of 2 years. 

As for its feathers, they change depending on the season to help camouflage the bird. During the winter, the Japanese grouse sprouts pristine white feathers to mask it as it sits in the chunks of snow. When spring and summer unfold, they molt again to grow brown patches of feathers, to mimic the ground. It isn’t the same for all birds; the upper half of the make usually comes in a grayish hue.    

By Alpsdake (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What Does the Japanese Grouse Eat?

Because the Japanese grouse are like chickens in the sense that they are ground feeders, their diet (as well as other rock ptarmigan species) includes food that is found on the floor. What that food is made of usually differs depending on the season. The buds of willow and birch trees. Catkins, flowers, seeds, leaves, and berries are also good for them, while a baby Japanese grouse can eat insects, to give them protein for growth. 

The Japanese Grouse, Scientifically Speaking

Most commonly known as the “rock ptarmigan”, the Japanese Grouse is merely a subspecies of that group, called “L. m. japonica” (or “Japanese ptarmigan”) by H.L. Clark in 1907. It is important to note that this is just one of around 30 subspecies of rock ptarmigans found around Asia, and is known to be the southernmost kind of all the subspecies located in Asia. 

In dictionary specifics, It is of the Animal kingdom, the Chordata Phylum, the Aves class, the Galliformes order, the Phasianidae family, the Lagopus genus, and the L. Muta. Its Binomial name is the Lagopus Muta and was named in 1781 by a man named Montin. 

There is a reason as to why this bird is called the “Lagopus muta”. The word “Lagopus” means “rabbit foot” or “hare foot”. The word “lagos”, which has Greek origins, refers to “hare”, while “pous” means foot. 

This combination describes exactly how thick the feathers around the Raicho’s legs can get. They turn white, especially during winter, mimicking the size and look of a rabbit’s foot. A for the “muta”, it means “mute”, because these birds are usually very quiet when they croak. 

“Ptarmigan”, has Scottish origins, stemming from the word “tarmachan”, which means “croaker”. Robert Sibbald, an antiquary, geographer, and physician, added the silent “p” in “ptarmigan” because of the way the Greeks similarly did this to name anything that had to do with a creature of flight; as seen with the word “pteron”

Found Not Just in Japan, But in Other Parts of The World

The Japanese grouse may be a subspecies native to only Japan, but it has relatives all over the world and comes from a common species that is not at all endangered or threatened. These birds are all sedentary in nature, and can be found in places (usually mountains) up in Greenland, all the way to the Russian High Arctic. Other areas they occupy include the Arctic Cordillera, the Pamir Mountains, and others.

In Japan, the two areas that see its highest concentration are Hakusan Mountain and the entire stretch of the Japan Alps. It can also be spotted around Hokkaido’s Chubu Mountain region. 

The Reproduction Process of Japanese Grouse

At 6 months of age, a Japanese grouse would be mature enough to reproduce. Female Japanese grouses build their nests around areas that are flat, treeless, and cold, using a combination of scavenged grass, feathers, and leaves, etcetera. 

The only ornament that a male Raicho has would be its comb. This sets it apart from other grouses that reside in temperate habitats, as different sizes and colors are used very much in fighting over and winning a female mate.

The bigger the comb size of the Japanese grouse, the likelier that it has more testosterone compared to the other Japanese grouses. This level of testosterone makes them more aggressive towards the same sex. Not only that, but bigger, more well-kept combs also had the tendency to have the most success when it comes to mating. Males that tended to go for more than one female bird would often have bigger combs than those who would stick to one partner.

Risky Business

When it is mating season, males don’t shed their white feathers that they grew over winter too quickly, which increases their liability of being seen and eaten by their predators. Although these birds make easy prey for foxes, owls, and hounds because of their generally passive behavior, their reproduction rate makes up for any fatalities that occur due to hunting, hatching 6 to 13 chicks per mating season. However, the Japanese grouse species, in particular, are decreasing in population and is currently being treated by measures implemented by the government to be conserved.

While the male Japanese grouse is susceptible to being spotted, the opposite is true for their female counterparts. They molt to grow new feathers for summer, allowing them to blend seamlessly with the ground. While the female Japanese grouse rests on her nest to warm her eggs, she would only be visible if you come at least 2 meters near her, and purposely look for her. 

The Growth Cycle of a Japanese Grouse

It takes an incubation period of about 21-22 days for the eggs to hatch. When the chicks do hatch, they are immediately able to open their eyes, and already possess their own sets of feathers. When they hatch, their feathers are still wet from the contents of the egg, so they have to wait for that substance to evaporate before they can have a go at walking.

After 5 minutes of exploring the outside world, the chicks have had enough, so they retreat to their mother for warmth. Due to their lack of ability to warm themselves, they still seek this warmth from their mother. From there it’s touch and goes, as they discover more about their surroundings and peck around for food, repeating that pattern. 

By Alpsdake (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In their first week, the chicks start to test their ability to fly, which they are able to do for around three meters. In a month’s time, these birds officially can be classified as juvenile rock ptarmigans. The older the family gets, the steeper up the mountain they go, leaving their flatter homes. This is so the juveniles learn how to hide and camouflage themselves and grow to become independent. Sadly, not all of them make it all the way through adulthood due to being exposed to harsh elements of the environment, have been hurt, or eaten by a predator. 

After about 4 months, those juvenile ptarmigans should be as large as their parents are. By winter, they are on their own and have to withstand the freezing temperatures for the next third of the year.

The Feather Color Cycles of the Japanese Grouse

Beginning in Spring, males take on feathers that are colored dark brown (after mating), while females take on a mellower yellow-brown look. In February, a hint of black plumage will start to show on the heads, chests, and necks of the males followed my longer ones or “summer feathers” that sprout as June approaches. The females molt during April and finish by May. 

By the time the mother’s chicks have grown old enough to go on their own, it’s a signal for the males to slowly go back to their winter feathers (though some of them begin to do so even if the birds are near hatching period), because they no longer must look out for their vulnerable young. This occurs around July. Females, however, start later, around August to September, as they are fresh from the stress of raising their young, and need a recovery period before they begin the molting process, which can be stressful for the bird.

By Alpsdake (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In September or Autumn, both birds will look almost undiscernible, show off dark dirty brown with bits of white on their feathers. It’s only when the snow starts to fall that the birds start to shed those feathers for pure white, brilliant plumage that will last them throughout the winter season until Spring begins again. 

Revered By the Japanese Society

Although these cute little birds can be deemed as perfect game practice, (they don’t run away or fly much, and are passive to the letter) the Japanese avoid going out on hunts to kill them, as they have been classified as a special natural monument. Though there are many ptarmigans around the world, the Japanese grouse, in particular, has reached the red list of the environment ministry, which means that these rare birds are to be protected and cared for at all costs.