They stomp their feet like a child having a tantrum. They flare long “ear” plumes (pinnae feathers) into an impressive double erection like jackrabbit ears, and bend over to stick their tail feathers straight up in the air to moon anyone nearby. Most impressively, they inflate apricot-colored air sacs on the sides of their neck into a pear shape, with matching inflatable eyebrows (superciliary combs), all the while with a look in their eyes that says, “I am one tough cock.”
Occasionally, two cocks would face off, deflate themselves, and one of them would attack. Feathers would fly. They’d spar a couple of times, with bouts lasting just a few seconds, and then walk away and resume their jack-rabbit-ears-inflated-gular sac-moon posture. I didn’t see such violence but sometimes the cockfights prove lethal.
Check out the video, which I shot about 15 minutes before sunrise.
Greater prairie-chickens start their gentle cooing even before the sun comes up. Oo oo loooo, oo oo loooo. Then nuthatch-like grunts, and an occasional WALK! and stereotypical chicken-like bok-bok-ba-gock sounds.
Several times, one flew onto the roof of our blind—a retired stock trailer—and stomped his feet on the metal roof. Talk about loud!
All this for the attention of a female.
But why? Why must they put on such a show as part of their courtship?
American woodcocks do a pretty crazy courtship display, too. Hummingbirds have showy courtship display flights.
All of those birds are polygynous, which means one male mates with many females, which, I presume, means the very best genes are passed on, since females are likely to turn up their nose (or bill) to inferior males.
Still, I don’t know why. Why aren’t all birds polygynous? Wouldn’t it be cool if male robins had brilliant apricot-colored inflatable gular sacs to impress the ladies?
It seems crazy to me that the spectacular display of greater prairie-chickens is necessary for the strongest genes to be passed on, when such behavior isn’t necessary for, say, cardinals.
Even if I don’t understand it, life on Earth is much more interesting because of the differences in avian appearance and behavior, and a deep desire to witness and enjoy those differences, as many as possible, makes me a birder.
Details of my visit
The audible portion of the show started while it was still pitch dark, and lasted for two hours after sunrise. The prairie-chickens may have started their 2015 pageant as early as February, and it will probably continue into early May. I was in McCook, Nebraska, on March 21 and 22. The rancher who owns the land the lek is on is Angus Garey, who works with Prairie Chicken Dance Tours.
Angus grew up in this part of Nebraska, and was aware of prairie-chickens his entire life. But he didn’t know about leks until about 10 years ago, when a neighbor of his happened upon one on his own ranch. Angus decided to look for one on his property, and drove his pickup onto a high, flat spot before dawn and waited. He was parked smack on the lek, and the birds proceeded to do their courtship display on the roof and hood of the truck. What an introduction to prairie-chicken courtship!
A visit to the lek involves a mandatory classroom session the evening before so that visitors can learn proper lek-etiquette and ask their fill of questions before they reach the blind, where silence is imperative. Angus clearly takes great pride and joy in the lek and the birds, and relishes the opportunity to share this crazy spectacle of nature with others. I was very happy and grateful to help him out with that.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.