Prairie Grouse – experiencing a lek in spring

Every year visitors to Nebraska’s rich and varied landscape are all but guaranteed to see one of nature’s greatest events. Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chicken (don’t be fooled by the name, this is also a type of Grouse) use the vast plains, much to the delight of onlookers, to dust off their wings from the long winter and demonstrate their similarly elaborate appearance and courtship behavior on a ‘lek.’

A lek is an area where animals, in particular grouse and prairie chickens, come together during mating season to display their assets and courtship behavior to attract the best possible mate. The term lek can also be used as a collective noun for the animals in an area indulging in these courtship activities. Each lek tends to have a maximum of 20 birds displaying, and they are dotted around the Great Plains of Nebraska, including the Sandhills and the more northerly areas that surround the Platte River. Females will often visit more than one lek; especially the pickiest females looking for the most impressive male.

Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chicken indulge in similar courtship methods; both occupying the northwestern regions of Nebraska, and coming together to share the same terrain between March and July to strut their stuff.  The best time to see a lek in full flow is April, but the other months also provide plenty of clear sightings. Unlike the Greater Prairie Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse can be found in a wider mix of habitats, and also use Nebraska’s parkland for lekking.

To help distinguish the two, male Sharp-tailed Grouse have two purple air sacs, one on each cheek, whereas Greater Prairie Chickens have orange air sacs. Both species puff the air sacs out during courtship and force the air to create a resonating call to attract the attention of potential mates. This behavior is combined with fast-paced running on the spot, with the tail cocked in the air whilst rapidly wiggling it from side-to-side.

Male Sharp-tailed Grouse are slightly less elaborate than male Greater Prairie Chicken, as their air sacs are considerably smaller and the latter species have the benefit of impressive ‘ears,’ raised during lekking, to steal the birdwatcher’s attention away. However, Sharp-tailed Grouse have attractively arranged white outer tail feathers, shaped into a teardrop from the rear, with a few black spots at the peak, which warrants close attention from bird spotters.

The Sharp-tailed Grouse and Prairie Chicken mating season is a must for Nebraska’s visitors; ranking as one of April’s best attractions. You might be able to see videos of a lek, but they will never do this wondrous experience justice. Get your diary and set aside a day, or a week if you can, to see one of nature’s greatest gifts: Sharp-tailed Grouse and Prairie Chicken lekking on the Great Plains of Nebraska.

Leave a Reply