Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Portrait of a male Greater Prairie-Chicken, Tympanuchus cupido.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU. 2007.

This morning, I had the great privilege to watch male Greater Prairie-chickens, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, perform on a lek site located on the Konza Prairie in Kansas, along with Dave Rintoul’s ornithology class. Not only was this the first time I’d seen lekking behavior for this species, but this was the first time I’d ever seen this species in the wild.

To do this, I crawled out of bed at 430am, so I had enough time to comb the tangles out of my hair (I learned that all hair conditioners are NOT created equal!) before we left to pick up the van and then Dave’s students at 530am so we could make it to the blind on the Konza by 6am — before the prairie-chickens began to dance.

The morning, as you can see from the images, was incredibly foggy. I was surprised to find it was quite windy and cold, too. I had never experienced fog at the same time there was a still wind, but apparently this is not unusual in Kansas.

For awhile, we all watched dark blobs moving through the mist on this lek site, unsure whether these were birds, moving cow pies, or hallucinations/wishful thinking. But shortly after it became light enough to distinguish birds from cow pies, the prairie-chickens finally showed up — their booming alerted us to their arrival, and nearly all of them appearing within a minute or two (I counted nine male birds in total, one of which was not banded).

The males began dancing almost immediately, although it took quite awhile to capture them with my digital camera. The male prairie-chickens gave a short, intense performance before they sat on the ground in pairs to stare at each other for long periods of time.

Dancing male Greater Prairie-chickens, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus,
on their lek site located on the Konza Prairie, in the fog near Manhattan Kansas.

These two birds were probably too cold to do much serious dancing,
so they sat and stared at each other for quite a long time.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

After a staring contest, one or another pair would stand up, erect their feathery “ears” and vocally quarrel with each other in their peculiar voices before jumping up into the air to attack each other with their feet;

Dancing male Greater Prairie-chickens, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus,
on their lek site located on the Konza Prairie, in the fog near Manhattan Kansas.

A fight! Unfortunately, my camera pauses for a moment before the shutter closes,
so this was not the picture I meant to take — that picture occurred approximately
half a second earlier, when both birds were airborne, kicking each other with their feet.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

This individual prairie-chicken wandered into the lek long after the other birds had already been squabbling for awhile;

Dancing male Greater Prairie-chickens, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus,
on their lek site located on the Konza Prairie, in the fog near Manhattan Kansas.

This bird spent most of his time trying to resemble a cow pie.
That blob on the left is a cow pie.

Image: GrrlScientist 2008. [larger view].

Dave decided this particular bird was “retarded” since he spent most of his time staring in our direction (maybe he was sleeping?), alternating with periods of time when he would meticulously groom his plumage. (I disagreed with Dave; this was the most sensible bird on the lek in my opinion). This bird never did really engage with any other male, although he did “boom” a little bit for us. Since he was so close (relatively speaking) to the blind where all of us were freezing our butts off, we all hoped he would treat us to a special treat by dancing atop of the blind. Alas, no such luck!

For those of you who are interested in weather reports, the wind and fog were quite penetrating, so my fingers, which were wrapped around my binoculars, froze quickly, making photography difficult. It also altered the voices of these birds so they echoed eerily around us, enveloping us in an weird, high-pitched humming sound.

The orange cheek patches were very bright and easily visible from the blind when I watched the birds through my binoculars (Swarovsky 10×50), but my camera was unable to capture these patches because the birds were moving so quickly when exposing them.

Here’s another of Dave’s images to give you an idea of what the birds look like when dancing;

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken, Tympanuchus cupido,
dances in front of a water-filled bison wallow on the Konza Prairie, Kansas.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU. 2007. [larger view].
There are more spectacular images like this at Dave’s Greater Prairie-chicken pictures site.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Ayers
    March 28, 2008

    Thanks for these wonderful images and your account! I’ve long wanted to see such scenes, but they have become rare.

  2. #2 The Ridger
    March 28, 2008

    Your camera may have a setting where you can change that delay on the shutter – mine does, though it took a while to find it.

    Nice shots anyway. I’ve never been anywhere near lekking birds. Cool.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    March 28, 2008

    But . . . they’re still chickens.

  4. #4 Chris' Wills
    March 28, 2008

    What do they taste like?

    Turkey or Chicken or Grouse?

    Hungry me wants to know.

  5. #5 Drew Wheelan
    March 28, 2008

    I’m actually pretty sure that they taste like a cross between Green Iguana and Piping Plover. Can’t wait for my lifer Prarie Chickens!

  6. #6 CHRISTIANE LAURENT
    March 29, 2008

    These wild birds are beautifull I have never seen one like it.