Not your average chicken

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.

male prairie chicken display

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.

prairie chicken display-

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.

prairie chicken display

Now this interaction might lead to something…

prairie chicken display

Instead of a fight, we have parallel displays, both presenting sideways, instead of threatening each other face to face.

prairie chicken display-

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.

prairie chicken display-

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.

prairie chicken display

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.

6 thoughts on “Not your average chicken

  1. I did a visual double-take when I saw your first shot–it looks like a cartoonish cross between a chicken and a rabbit. The video helped a lot in understanding what was going on. You managed to get some great action shots of the colorful displays. Wow!

  2. It was an unforgettable experience, sitting in the middle of all this activity with all the “booming” sounds around us, accompanied by an occasional song of a meadowlark (just like in the video). Unfortunately, it was a rainy, dreary day, and the light was so weak, it made shooting action photos very difficult.

  3. Brilliant. That video is fascinating! Despite watching natural history documentaries a lot, I had never seen film of this bird before. Sad that their numbers are in such decline. Imagine what it must have been like to hear thousands of them booming together!

  4. Pingback: Courtship face-off | Back Yard Biology

  5. Pingback: on the Black Grouse lek | Back Yard Biology

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