Prairie Chickens might cackle a little like a farmyard chicken, but they are definitely not in the same class. These native prairie inhabitants put on quite a show in the spring, with 20 or more males joining up to display their prowess to the local females in a central “booming” ground, called a lek. Here’s a little of the show we saw early this morning while sitting in blinds provided by the Nature Conservancy at Bluestem Prairie near Moorhead, MN.
The males arrived right at 5:20, as usual, and got right to work displaying to each other and to an occasional female wandering through their little area of the community lek on the booming ground.
Bright yellow colored skin on the neck is inflated with air as the chicken utters its low frequency,two syllable “woo-hoo” which can be heard from quite a distance away. They lean forward, tilt the tail feathers upward and spread them, and then raise elongate black neck feathers like two horns behind their head. It’s quite an intricate display between the sound effects and the posturing with raised feathers. In between booms, males occasionally drum their feet by dancing a little in place or run toward another male to chase them off their booming area, as the video below shows.
An elaborate series of postures and displays between males may escalate to flying at each other or to simply turning around and going the other direction.
Now this interaction might lead to something…
Instead of a fight, we have parallel displays, both presenting sideways, instead of threatening each other face to face.
But every now and then, one bird just ticks the other one off, and the back and forth postures and displays erupt into a great flapping of wings and wild leaps in the air.
No blood was spilled, and the two birds went right back to displaying, booming, and running around their little area of the lek.
Unfortunately, numbers of Greater Prairie Chickens have declined markedly due to loss of grassland habitat and hunting pressure in the early 1900s. Where once hundreds of thousands of birds roamed throughout the Great Plains, now managed grassland areas hold just a few hundred birds, and populations fluctuate as the land around them is converted from idle cropland (e.g., land in the Conservation Reserve Program) back into full-scale agricultural production. In addition, these small, isolated populations are prone to some inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, which makes it even more difficult to them to meet the challenges of a changing environment and climate.
These energetic little males put on a 3-hr show for us, and then suddenly departed all together right at 8:30, just as they have every day in the past month. One male insisted on displaying right in front of the blind, giving us a rare frontal view of the booming display.
LATE ADDITION: If you wander over to Paul Sundberg’s blog for this week, you’ll see a similar display in another lekking species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Paul’s photos, taken in bright morning light (instead of the rainy overcast we had) really highlight the action and color of these otherwise very cryptically colored birds.