A Song for APRIL 12

Click the sonogram to hear and see the sound.

Leaving the annual meeting of the New Mexico Ornithological Society late in the afternoon of April 11, 1981, John Trochet and I headed for the eastern plains in hopes of visiting a lek of the Lesser Prairie Chicken the next morning. We had quizzed people at the meeting about where to go, and someone had given us a phone number for a landowner in Roosevelt County who was friendly to birders. Borrowing someone's office, we gave him a call and got the prized invitation. He gave us his address and said to drive up to his house at 5:00. We were not going to take any chances on missing the rendezvous, so we drove all the way to his gate that night, and slept in the car by the roadside.

We thought the rendezvous was 5:00 a.m. so we could be on the lek before the chickens arrived, which is the protocol we were familiar with. Actually, it was so we wouldn't miss the launch of the first space shuttle mission from Cape Canaveral. He was keen to watch that, and he fed us a hearty breakfast on top of it. Then we got into his pickup and drove out onto the prairie. Sunrise was long past as we drove into the middle of the lek. The chickens didn't seem to mind, as they danced all around us. The recording proves it.

Many kinds of birds display in leks, including a few hummingbirds, cotingas, sandpipers, and especially grouse. Males display together in hopes the amplitude of the joint display will attract females to their lek instead of some other one over the hill. Once the females arrive, male-male cooperation stops (for the most part). Still, it's up to the females to pick the males they prefer. All the males can do is do their best.

This recording seems to be pretty representative of an active lek. The sounds below 1 kHz are widdoo calls. They are given by males while strutting with their air sacs inflated, and pinnae pointed straight up like a railway semaphore. The longer, louder calls are long calls. Pieplow says they may signal the presence of a female. I haven't listened to this recording in a long, long time. I takes me right back to that moment with the bright sun rising over the plain, the meadowlarks and horned larks singing in the register about the chickens, and the light wind bending the short grass. I certainly appreciate that gentlemen's hospitality, because in all probability it was a once in a lifetime experience.

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