Bird behavior – whether at a backyard feeder or a far-off destination – is nearly always fun to observe. And there’s perhaps no better place to see cool behavior than at a lek.
A lek is not a formal term, but it generally means a gathering of male birds that strut, dance and/or sing to show off for females. The female selects the most fit male from the group.
There are leks on wide-open prairie and in dense rainforest. Many bird tours, wildlife refuges and even private landowners have set up blinds and viewing stations where you can obtain world-class views without disturbing the show.
A long list of birds display at leks. Here are some of our favorites.
I had been walking this trail at Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Station for the past several days and it was a good one. I had seen a Mexican mouse opossum, a spectacled owl, a large fer-de-lance and other biological treasures. On my last morning, I had another surprise.
I heard a slight crack, like somebody snapping a handkerchief, and then saw a small shape spring in an arc over bare ground. A white-collared manakin lek. The male springs back and forth, giving the appearance of avian popcorn popping.
Many of the most sought-out lekking birds are large species. Manakins are quite small, but they make up for that with a lot of charisma. There are more than 50 species, and many of them lek. The males typically clear off ground in their area and then engage in various displays. Visiting manakin leks has become a mainstay of many birding tours in Central and South America.
A lek is I will hesitantly confess that tropical birding is not my favorite naturalist activity. Often it involves getting subpar views in dense forest, with multiple species flitting around, and competitive listers shouting out names. No thanks. But observing a manakin lek – especially one you accidentally find on a morning’s hike – is pure joy, one of the best bird shows on the planet. (MM)
The greater sage-grouse is often called “the next spotted owl.” It’s an apt description, as declining sage grouse populations have led to increasingly rancorous debates about energy development, grazing, endangered species listings and other concerns. These are important issues for conservationists. But there is also a risk that the grouse becomes a political symbol rather than a real, living bird.
And what a bird it is. I love every sage grouse encounter, whether it’s a flock flushing in front of me in the sagebrush or a hen and chicks pecking at grasshoppers on a summer day. But best of all is the grouse lek.
In spring, male sage grouse gather on leks to attract females. They appear like ghosts before light: small groups of plump birds standing in open areas surrounded by sagebrush. They puff up, tail feathers erect, chest extended. Large air sacs are inflated on their breasts, making a distinct plop.
You have to get up early in the morning and sit motionless in the high desert. But you’ll be rewarded in the soft light of dawn, as sage grouse begin their show. It’s not unusual to see 15 males vying for the attention of female grouse on a lek, a site that grouse use year after year. (I’ve seen more than 50 on a lek at The Nature Conservancy’s Crooked Creek Preserve). (MM)
If the birding gods granted me one wish to see any species in the world, I’d choose the kakapo. These adorable, dumpy parrots are found in New Zealand, where non-native predators ate the species to within a few feathers of extinction. It’s not hard to see why: kakapo are fat, flightless, and totally naive to the dangers posed by cats, stoats, or rats.
Part of the problem is that kakapo aren’t exactly prodigious breeders. They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re near 5 years old, and they only reproduce when a specific species of tree fruits en-mass every two to four years. And their odd courtship behavior doesn’t help, either.
To attract a mate, male kakapos toddle up a mountain, dig a hole in the dirt, and then “boom” into it for up to 8 hours straight, each night, for up to three months. These low-frequency calls might not sound very loud, but the sound can travel up to 5 kilometers. Upon hearing this enticing serenade, female kakapos then have to clamber through the forest (again, they can’t fly) and up the mountain to find the males. This type of lek structure, where males display at a distance from one another, is called an “exploded lek.”
Scientists have gone to great lengths to help the species recover. All of the world’s surviving kakapo — just 199 birds — now live on predator-free offshore islands, where scientists run a captive breeding program. They’ve done everything from creating synthetic kakapo “perfumes” to designing a special sperm-collecting helmet for one male who developed an unfortunate habit of attempting to mate with people’s heads. (JEH)
I’m a grouse enthusiast, and the capercaillie is perhaps my ultimate dream bird. Found across a wide range in Eurasia, it’s the largest of the grouse and arguably has the most dramatic mating display.
Capercaillie leks are complex affairs; there’s so much going on that I don’t have enough space for all the nuance. (For a great description, I suggest Grouse of the World by Roald Popatov and Richard Sale). Capercaillie typically lek under forest cover, but in areas where the displaying birds are visible for 60-70 yards.
Male capercaillies perform a complex mix of songs, many barely audible. One strange aspect of the male’s singing is that its hearing decreases as it sings (a fact exploited by hunters). Researchers note that some grouse sing one song after another without stopping; Grouse of the World notes males that have sung 500 songs without stopping.
Males have a number of display postures, some only rarely witnessed. They jump, dance and even “sprawl.” Grouse of the World describes sprawling as such: “An old male, walking within its territory, lies on the snow, its breast in contact, the neck and head stretched forward, the wings folded, the tail partly spread and lowered.”
Males confront each other frequently at leks, sometimes resulting in deadly battles. Historically, leks of 100 capercaillies or more have been observed, but most lek counts now are much smaller. Sadly, as is the case with many grouse species, capercaillies have declined over much of their range. (MM)
Shake, shimmy, hop, scream, repeat. That’s how a bird-of-paradise attempts to woo a mate.
There are 44 bird-of-paradise species — four in Australia, and the remaining 40 on the island of New Guinea. The family is infamous for extravagant plumage and breeding displays, but the 6 species in the Paradisaea genus have the most celebrated lek displays, with plumage to match.
The males have green and yellow heads, with body and tail feathers that range from warm brown, to white and yellow, to a brilliant, neon orange, depending on the species. Their tails are extraordinary, fluffy masses of feathers that look like the crest of a gladiator’s helmet.
They lek on bare, horizontal branches high in the rainforest canopy. Once a female arrives, chaos ensues. All of the males get in position — body horizontal, head down, wings outstretched, fluffy tail feathers erect — and then start to display. Each species has its own variation: they hop left and right, bob up and down, sway side-to-side and beat their wings in tune with their ear-splitting calls. (You can read more about my attempts to see a lesser bird-of-paradise in person here.) (JEH)
A male Andean cock-of-the-rock is both beautiful and bizarre. It has bright orange feathers and an oval crest that covers up its beak. Any sighting of a cock-of-the-rock is memorable, but even more so at their very raucous leks.
Andean cock-of-the-rocks are found in Andean subtropical and cloud forests. Like the ruffed grouse, their wariness and forest habitat can make them difficult to spot. Fortunately, many birding lodges have established blinds, where the birds can be viewed easily from just a short distance away. Since they have a long lekking season – from July through February in some locales – there are great opportunities for visiting naturalists to view the spectacle.
I saw them at the Manu cloud forest of Peru, and what a show it was. The American Bird Conservancy describes the drama well: “Once a group of males gathers, competitors perch in pairs or small groups to perform mock confrontational displays, which feature bowing, wing-flapping, head-bobbing, bill-snapping, and bizarre squeaking and grunting calls. They frantically redouble their display efforts when the rufous-brown females approach to assess their performances.” (MM)
You feel it before you hear it. A low thump-thump-thumping that picks up the pass like a rolling drum. On a warm spring day, the eastern hardwood forest is a symphony of bird song, and the ruffed grouse provides the percussive exclamation point.
Male ruffed grouse establish a lek on a fallen log; research shows they may select their location in the fall or winter. The drumming sound is not a call but the male grouse beating its wings. As noted by the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy, “Through a series of increasingly fast wingbeats, the bird creates sudden changes in air pressure that make a rhythmic low-frequency sound.”
North America’s open-country grouse – sage grouse, prairie chickens and sharptails – are reliably viewed at their leks. There are tours and established blinds, and you can watch the spectacle from a distance. Not so with the ruffed grouse. They are legendarily wary and are difficult to spot in their forest habitat.
The sound can carry for up to half a mile, so it’s also hard to pinpoint where the drumming bird is. It’s best just to sit back and enjoy the sounds. (MM)
It looked like a tiny shrine on the forest floor: Bare ground clear of debris. Two walls of sticks, arching delicately towards one another. Blue feathers and bottle caps arranged in a wide arc. And a small plastic doll, splayed in the center of the structure, eyes wide and mouth open in a plastic scream. But this wasn’t the scene of some pagan ritual in miniature. I’d stumbled upon the bower of a satin bowerbird.
Birds in the bowerbird family, also found in Australia and New Guinea, are known for building elaborate bower structures, complete with decorations. One of the most well-known is Australia’s satin bowerbird, found in forests along the country’s eastern coast.
Competition for the best bower decorations can be intense, with males frequently leaving their bower to raid decorations from a rival. Scientists studying bowerbird lek behavior discovered that males tend to build their bowers near their relatives and that they were less destructive towards their kin than towards non-relatives. Scientists studying this behavior discovered that the birds prefer to steal objects that reflect ultraviolet light, like blue parrot feathers and milk bottle tops.
For more on bowerbird architecture and the science behind it, check out this story. (JEH)
North America has its sage grouse, but the Old World has its bustards.
The 26 species in the bustard family are known for being some of the heaviest flying birds on the planet. They’re usually found in dry grassland habitats in Africa, Europe, parts of Asia, and Australia. Bustards spend most of their time on the ground and will typically run, rather than fly, if startled.
Most species of bustard lek, and birders familiar with sage grouse and prairie chicken will find their displays familiar: strutting and stamping, and a lot of inflated air sacs.
The great bustard has one of the weirdest displays, which one birder aptly describes as the “crazy snowball lekking dance.” Males start by strutting across the grassland with their chests puffed out, eyeing one another. Then, the real display begins. They tuck in their head back, inflate their throat sack, flip their primary flight feathers backwards, and cock their tail up into a floofy puff over their heads. Then they sort of jiggle about, turning this way and that as they search hopefully for a female. With multiple males dancing at once, bustard leks are quite a sight. (JEH)