An aggressive encounter between two male greater prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido). During aggressive encounters, males leap into the air and strike their opponent with feet, wings and/or beak. Fort Pierre National Grassland, South Dakota.
Every spring, flocks of prairie chickens and grouse gather in the prairies of the American West to strut and sing and fight for the attention of females. It's called a lek, and like many wildlife mating rituals, it's all about female choice.
Adult male lesser prairie chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) have brightly colored air sacs on the sides of their neck that they inflate during courtship displays. Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas.
Adult male lesser prairie chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) have brightly colored air sacs on the sides of their neck that they inflate during courtship displays. Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas. Gerrit Vyn/gerritvynphoto.com
Adult male sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) displaying at dawn on a lek. Fort Pierre National Grassland, South Dakota.
Adult male sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) displaying at dawn on a lek. Fort Pierre National Grassland, South Dakota. Gerrit Vyn/gerritvynphoto.com
Gerrit Vyn is a wildlife biologist who photographed and recorded the sounds of five of these species: the greater and lesser prairie chicken, greater sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and Gunnison sage grouse. "All of these species have undergone drastic population declines since we settled the West," Vyn says.
Some sound like alien techno music, others resemble old lawnmower engines ... but all of these calls were made by grouse and prairie chickens. Recordings provided by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Recording them requires getting up before dawn and crawling into a blind — essentially a box with peepholes. Vyn says it's a great front-row seat, though: "You really do get that feeling when you're out there that you're experiencing our country as it once was."
These male birds make a cacophony of bizarre sounds — cooing, cackling, humming and squawking, mostly by puffing up their large and colorful cheek pouches. Some also make sounds by rubbing their wings over their chests. The sharp-tailed grouse even makes a lawnmower-like sound by stamping its feet at a tremendously rapid pace.
"The interaction between the males is really fascinating," says Vyn. "They are constantly patrolling the perimeter of these small territories they have in the lek, and at the edges of these territories, they're getting into these really brutal fights. They'll fly at each other and somersault and try to pull their feathers out."
In the end, the great majority of the females choose only a few of the males to mate with, depending on how much they like a male's strut and singing prowess.
The sounds are part of the collection of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where Vyn works as a biologist and wildlife sound recordist.