Lek is a word of Scandinavian origin identifying a particular, traditional area of land or water to which various species congregate, year after year, to enact mating rituals. Among the creatures that mate at leks are pipe-fish and marine iguanas, and, above all, certain species of birds—notably prairie grouse, sage grouse, and woodcocks. At the avian leks, male birds display in an array of ingenious ways, variously leaping, jousting, strutting, drumming, spiraling into the air, then plummeting to earth in zigzags—all behaviors evolved to attract females of the species. After observing the displays, female birds choose mates based on signs of prowess, including, in some species, the male’s ability to maintain a position in the center of the lekking ground. The spectacular events at the leks on the American prairies also impressed the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Shoshone peoples, who incorporated stylized elements of lek displays into some of their dances. Today, many traditional lek grounds have been fragmented or erased altogether by such activities as grazing and agriculture, mining, subdivision and highway construction, and chemical treatments. As suitable lek territories have diminished, the populations of American lekking birds have also declined steeply. Happily, in some areas, including the eastern Texas Panhandle, sustainable ranching techniques are restoring both native grasses and good lek territories.

Emily Hiestand