Male sage grouse congregate on leks for the same reason young men go to singles bars: They're hoping to get lucky.
For the grouse, sex is very much a
one-night stand, which explains why the males gather in late winter
at traditional sites to perform their mating dances. Cocks provide
no assistance to hens incubating eggs, or rearing broods. All they
offer is their genes.
Lek is short for the
Swedish term lekstalle, or mating place. Some
leks may have been used for millennia. They tend to be in open
places, such as old lakebeds, ridgetops, cropland, dirt roads or
burned areas - with thick sage cover close by. Leks need to offer
good views, so that females can check out the males, and males can
keep an eye out for predators. Historical records indicate that
hundreds of male sage grouse often gathered in the pre-dawn hours
at a single lek, dancing for all they were
The ritual of competition for females is
largely limited to showing off, with very little fighting between
males. By some accounts, the mating display of male sage grouse
inspired some Native American dances.
cock stakes out a few yards of territory upon which to perform his
dance. He fans out the spiky feathers in his tail, lifts a halo of
black feathers over his head and inflates two yellow air sacs on
his chest, which protrude through the white breast feathers like
egg yolks. Rearing up on his legs, the bird rapidly draws his wings
across his ruff and makes several loud popping sounds - called
booming - through the air sacs.
males charge each other, defending a piece of turf. The top males
tend to claim the center of the lek; the skinny teenagers lurk
around the outskirts, like underage kids outside the door of a
Females cruise through this popping, puffing
spectacle, sizing up their choices. They may visit several leks,
but when a girl grouse makes up her mind, she evidently knows what
she wants: some hens have been observed returning to a previously
visited lek and going straight to the cock of her choice, where she
offers herself for a quick copulation.
grouse tend to have similar taste in mates; 80 to 90 percent of the
mating done at a lek is conducted by just one lucky male. The
following winter, however, that male "almost always dies,"
according to biologist Jessica Young. Why this happens isn't
Why all the pageantry? Lekking is a very
efficient way for birds that live across a large landscape to size
up their potential mates.
In sage grouse country,
the males' booming can be heard for several miles when conditions
are right. Some studies indicate that other noises, such as those
produced by natural gas compressors and other machinery, may
interfere with the breeding rituals, another sign of the birds'
If you're interested in observing
the ritual dance on one of the leks, and helping the conservation
effort, you can volunteer for the National Wildlife Federation's
Adopt-A-Lek program. In April, volunteers go to field camps in
Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and possibly eastern Washington and
Northern California, to count grouse in leks, helping track
populations. Contact Ben Deeble, NWF, 240 N. Higgins Ave., Suite 6,
Missoula, MT 59802, or by e-mail, email@example.com, or by