If you ever have the early spring opportunity to watch or listen in on the happening of a prairie chicken lek during mating season, I highly recommend it. But prepare yourself for a walk in the dark - with strangers. At least that's how it worked at the Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch, roughly 3,000 acres of protected grassland in northern Missouri.
Arrive early. Take a walk. Settle yourself in the strategically placed viewing blind. Wait.
You will hear them before you see them. A quiet hum from the dark signals the mating ritual is underway. The sound for me is reminiscent of bumble bee breath (or brahmari pranayama), an age old yogic breathing practice. And like bumble bee breathing, I find it soothing as it wafts across the prairie to find my ears in the blind just before sunrise. The bright orange gular air sacs are what's behind the booming, a word often used to describe the hum. The fleshy bright pouches are inflated and released forcefully to create the sound which isn't super boomy but is effective nonetheless.
As the sun breaks the horizon, the prairie chickens, collectively called a "little house", become visible. Males stomp and boom in an attempt to capture the attention of hens on the lek. Competition is evident as squabbles and skiffs erupt between the males. After several hours, the birds are off for a snack and to rest before returning later in the day to continue the dance.
Prairie chickens are in the grouse family and are best known for this mating ritual. In Iowa, these interesting birds have been displaced by the massive conversion of prairie to agriculture. Check them out for reals if you have the chance. And if that's not your jam, enjoy a video clip here.