RITE TIME FOR PRAIRIE CHICKENS
From March through May, male chickens dance to attract mates
PRATT — Each spring, one of the most extraordinary mating rituals in all of nature occurs right here in Kansas — the courtship of the prairie grouse, more commonly known as the prairie chicken. On otherwise indistinguishable tracts of natural prairie landscape, groups of male chickens gather at dusk and dawn in elaborate dances designed to attract females.
These areas — called leks, or booming grounds — are actually formed in fall when the order of dominance is established among the males. At this time, mature males gather in these relatively high, flat areas and attempt to establish their own small territories as close to the center of the lek as possible, where activity will be highest in spring. Although young males visit the lek, they are kept to the edges and seldom given the opportunity to establish their own territories.
While the fall activity is important and interesting, it is the spring lekking, or “booming,” activity that most fascinates naturalists, both professional and amateur. Beginning in March and lasting through the end of May, male chickens display an incredible array of vocalizations and maneuvers to win the right to mate.
In the mating ritual, the male chicken's tail is elevated; horn-like feathers (called pinnae) on the neck are raised over the head; and the wings are lowered with the primary feathers spread. The bird stamps his feet while moving forward or in circles, and this is followed by a series of rapid tail snaps and fans. At the same time as the tail is clicked open and shut, a whoom-AH-oom sound is given as the bright orange air sacs on the neck are inflated for maximum exposure.
A second major display is flutter-jumping with associated cackling calls. The male jumps several feet into the air, flies forward, and lands. In so doing, the bird advertises its presence as well as the location of the lek. Flutter-jumping is typical of the peripheral males when females are near the center of the display ground.
A female will typically fly to the edge of a lek and walk slowly toward the center. When the hen enters a male’s territory, the male's behavior changes greatly. Lekking is performed with high frequency and extreme posturing. The male will display in circles around the female, showing all aspects of its plumage. At the peak of this performance, the dancer often spreads his wings and lays his head flat to the ground, as if bowing to the hen. If suitably impressed, the hen will stoop low to the ground, signaling that she is ready to mate.
Occasionally, fights break out among competing males. This is mostly ritual, as well, involving short jumps; striking with feet, beak, and wings; and face-offs in which the competitors whine and attempt to stare each other down. Injuries do occur but are seldom serious.
With its large, colorful air sacs, horn-like pinnae, and feathers growing all the way to its feet, the prairie chicken is one of the most beautiful birds in Kansas. And its mating ritual makes it one of the most fascinating birds to watch. Kansans are lucky to have the largest population of prairie chickens in the world, so viewing opportunities are good.
Two species of prairie chicken can be found in Kansas. The greater prairie chicken, by far the most populous, can be found throughout portions of northcentral and eastern Kansas, especially in the Flint Hills region. The lesser prairie chicken, which is slightly smaller and has red air-sacs instead of orange, can be found in pockets of native sandhill prairie in the southwest. The lesser prairie chicken male produces a higher-pitched, bubbly sound, or "gobble," leading to the term "gobbling grounds" for their leks. On a quiet spring morning, the sounds of both species can carry as far as two miles across the open prairie.
For a list of prairie chicken viewing opportunities, visit the Natural Kansas website www.naturalkansas.org/birding.htm#PCV or phone the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Emporia Office at 620-342-0658 or the Pratt Operations Office at 620-672-5911.