In 2008, when I had the opportunity to spend a week in eastern New Mexico photographing Lesser Prairie Chickens on the lek, I knew I would have an opportunity to capture some great action. After all, there are only so many headshots and portraits of birds dancing you can make, so I decided to focus several days worth of shooting trying to capture the fights on the lek.
The leks where I was photographing had several dozen birds displaying and each male worked hard to defend his own little area. However, it was a constant struggle to defend this small territory as neighboring birds constantly encroached and tried to expand their own territories. These little battles often escalated from dancing displays to standoffs and even to skirmishes. After witnessing a few battles my first morning there, I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time trying to capture these moments of conflict.
The battles themselves are brief, only a couple seconds long. The birds typically square off a foot or two apart and stare each other down. Then, without much warning, they launch at each other and jump in the air. After that, anything goes. Pecking, scratching, grabbing. It happens fast and then it is over. Sometimes it requires several jumps to determine a victor, but the birds then usually go on their way, only to fight again later in the morning when one tries to grab up a bit more territory.
Whether these fights actually influence the females’ selection, I don’t know. It may be that the females actually judge who wins each fight, or more likely, the winner gets a better position or a larger territory as a result, and this is what the females are using as selection criteria. Whatever the reason, on a crowded lek, fights are constantly breaking out and changing the dynamics of the site.
Tomorrow, we will look at a different species of prairie chicken, one that is so endangered that leks rarely have more than one to three males and therefore, fights are rare.