Greater Prairie Chickens
On the Lek

Bluestem Prairie, Hawley, MN

   A lek is a traditional place where males assemble during the mating season and engage in competitive displays that attract females. One such lek, where Greater Prairie Chickens assemble, is located in the wind swept prairie of western Minnesota. There, for three or four weeks each Spring, male Greater Prairie Chickens vocalize, display their plumage and engage in fierce confrontations, in the hope of attracting the eye of a receptive female.

At one time, the Greater Prairie Chicken was common across much of central and eastern North America. Today, the Prairie Chickens are quite uncommon and found only on small parcels of managed prairie land in N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and MInnesota. The Prairie Chicken is threatened by habitat loss and the loss of genetic variance resulting from the isolation of these existing populations.

It all begins hours before sunrise when the male Greater Prairie Chickens begin to arrive on the lek.  Many of he confrontations between dominant males occur at this time and a few hours later after the females have departed for the day.

Vocalizations on the lek before sunrise
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The appearance of the male Prairie Chicken is striking, with his yellow-orange air sacs (for vocalization) and neck feathers which stand erect when displaying.

While the female Greater Prairie Chicken does not have the flashy plumage of the male, in actuality, she controls the lek when present. At that time, every action taken by the male is directed towards her in some way.

As the sun rises, the female Greater Prairie Chickens have arrived on the lek. With the arrival of the females, the males become less interested in fighting each other and more interested in pursuing the females. As the females wander about the lek, a male will inflate his neck air sacs to vocalize and rapidly and audibly stamp his feet, to attract the female's attention.

Most of the time the females remain aloof. But every now and then the female is receptive and a brief coupling will occur. It is usually only the most dominant males that get the opportunity to mate.

Approximately two hours after arriving on the lek almost all the females depart for the day. The lek is left to the dominant males and younger males. The dominant males now engage in confrontations whose purpose appears to be the establishment and maintenance of territories within the lek. A confrontation begins when two dominant males rush towards each other and stop about a foot apart. A stare down period then begins. This period ends when either an aggressive move is made by one of the males or one of the males simply walks away while warily looking back at his adversary.

Fighting between the males can be fierce and feathers fly. But it's all about dominance and of course showing off for the females, if there are any about.

While the dominant males are defending their established territories on the lek, the younger males are trying to figure out how to gain access to the lek for the first time. Some of the younger males play it safe and try to attract attention by jumping in the air and vocalizing, all while staying on the outer fringes of the lek.

When a young male tries to enter the lek, he is chased off by the dominant male whose unseen territorial boundary he has crossed.

If the young male tries to make his way to the center of the lek, he will probably cross several unseen boundaries. Each time he crosses a boundary a dominant male will object. This usually results in a chaotic confrontation that the young male can just not win. But if he is ever to claim a place on the lek, he must keep trying.

By about three hours after sunrise, most of the male Greater Prairie Chickens have left the lek for the day.  The few that remain strut their stuff one last tine and engage in one more confrontation. But the true action is done for this day.

With a final call, the last male leaves the lek.

All is quiet now until the pre-dawn hours tomorrow, when the Greater Prairie Chicken mating activity on the lek will be played out once again.