It’s predawn on the prairies of eastern New Mexico and I sit in my blind listening to the darkness. A slight breeze riffles through the nylon of the blind, but otherwise the prairie is nearly silent. I wait, listening for any sound of dawn. An insect chirps mechanically occasionally in the darkness. As the first hint of dawn begins to seep across the Eastern horizon, I hear the heavy flap of wings as the first prairie chickens arrive to begin their morning displays. Soon, the birds begin to arrive from all directions, flying low across the prairie and landing in an open area, as they do every morning and evening each spring.
I can hear the displays before I can see them, strange noises as the males inflate the balloon-like pouches on the side of their neck and dance furiously trying to attract a female. As they bob their heads calling, it sounds like some weird noise a plastic toy might make, but its far more than a squeak. Something between a coo, a boom, and a whistle. There really is no other display like it.
These birds have gathered on what is known as a lek. All the males in the area will assemble, each morning, on one of a handful of locations to compete with each other for females. Every male performs essentially the same dance and vocalizations. A foot stomping, head bobbing dance that is accompanied by vocalizations created using inflated pouches of skin. As the males display, the females will approach the lek, watch the males, possibly select a male, and mate before leaving rather quickly.
What is truly amazing to me is that if you track the mate selection of all the females, a striking pattern emerges. The vast majority of the females will select the same male as a mate. There will be a small handful that picks a second or third male, but for most of the males on the lek, well they have a very frustrating spring season.
This pattern of dominance is about more than just the quality of the display because this isn’t just a “walk off” in the style of Zoolander. Fights and brief skirmishes break out constantly across the lek, and tomorrow we’ll look at this direct competition on the lek.