A female will typically fly to the edge of a lek and walk slowly toward the center. When the hen enters a male’s territory, the male's behavior changes greatly. The ritual is performed with high frequency and extreme posturing. The male will display in circles around the female, showing all aspects of its plumage. At the peak of this performance, the dancer often spreads his wings and lays its head flat to the ground, as if bowing to the hen. If suitably impressed, the hen will flatten to the ground, signaling a willingness to mate.
Occasionally, fights break out among competing males. This is mostly ritual, as well, involving short jumps; striking with feet, beak, and wings; and face-offs in which the competitors whine and attempt to stare each other down. Injuries do occur but are seldom serious.
With its large, colorful air sacs, horn-like pinnae, and feathers growing all the way to its feet, the prairie chicken is one of the most beautiful and unusual birds in Kansas. And its mating ritual makes it one of the most fascinating birds to watch. Kansans are lucky to have the largest population of prairie chickens in the world, so viewing opportunities are good.
Two species of prairie chicken can be found in Kansas. The greater prairie chicken, by far the most populous, can be found throughout portions of northcentral and eastern Kansas, especially in the Flint Hills region. The lesser prairie chicken, which is slightly smaller and has red air-sacs instead of orange, can be found in pockets of native sandsage prairie in the southwest. The lesser prairie chicken male produces a higher-pitched, bubbly sound, or "gobble," leading to the term "gobbling grounds" for their leks. On a quiet spring morning, the sounds of both species can carry as far as two miles across the open prairie.
For a list of prairie chicken viewing opportunities, visit the Natural Kansas website www.naturalkansas.org/birding.