Lesser Prairie-Chickens Return to the Leks

By Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales, NM

Out on the seemingly endless prairie, lesser prairie-chickens are stirring. Driven by an unknown force, they travel to a place that some of them have never been, but which they still somehow know.  Each year as winter’s veil is cast aside, male lesser prairie-chickens gather on their ancestral breeding grounds, known as leks, to bow and cackle, jump and fight and kick, and show off their ornaments in a bid to attract females.

Where did they spend the winter, and what did they do there? Though most research has shown that lesser prairie-chickens generally don’t travel more than a few miles from their chosen lek, you can spend days on end wandering through the grasslands in fall and winter and never catch a glimpse of one, even if you know the locations of the leks.

Male lesser prairie-chicken on the lek, March 22, 2015. photo Amy Erickson

Male lesser prairie-chicken on the lek, March 22, 2015. photo Amy Erickson

But as spring arrives, so do the prairie-chickens. Males usually return to the same leks year after year, and the females follow. What drives them to return to the same leks, and how do they recognize the location a year later—a site that often doesn’t appear (to us) much different from the surrounding landscape? How do juveniles know where to go and what to do during their first spring? Somehow they do know, and they arrive at the lek to dance or to watch the dance—likely the same lek where they themselves were conceived.

What makes a good lek? From the male’s perspective, it’s all about seeing and being seen. A lek is usually an area of low vegetation surrounded by taller grasses and shrubs suitable for nesting. A female prairie-chicken needs access to multiple habitat types within a few square miles in order to successfully raise her young, and a lek amid prime habitat will surely be most attractive to females. The vegetation on the lek must be short so the males can show off their vivid red air sacs, their tall yellow combs, and their long neck feathers, called “pinnae”. The female chooses a male based on his looks and his dance, as well as his ability to fight off rival males.

Prairie-chickens and so many other wildlife species depend on local ranchers and landowners, since most of their habitat is on private land. When ranches and open spaces are managed with wildlife in mind, everybody wins.  I feel fortunate to be part of an organization that works so hard to benefit landowners, the community, the ranching way of life, and wildlife.

Watching prairie-chickens on the lek is something I wish everyone could experience. I hope that in a hundred years people will still  see lesser prairie-chickens dancing in springtime on the High Plains, and ranchers will still be here taking care of the land. Collaborative conservation can make that happen.