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To Trek or Lek: A Guide to Dating for Grouse and Humans

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul takes an interesting look at the birds and the bees and lekking behavior with a human twist.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper (National Geographic Archives)

When I first learned about lekking behavior in an undergraduate behavioral ecology class, I felt blessed for two things:

First, and foremost, I was grateful not to be a gallinaceous bird like a quail, pheasant or grouse—the galliformes most commonly known to lek.

Second, I was blessed not to have to worry about performing any kind of courtship ritual to attract a mate because I already had a girlfriend.

Now that I’m “back on the market,” so to speak, and in a market like Alaska, which is so sparsely populated with females, I find myself acting more or less like fowl. Actually domestic fowl (chickens) and jungle fowl live in harems, where a dominant male holds court with exclusive rights to the hens hanging out in his territory.  Related grouse and pheasant species lek.  That is, both males and females meet at special breeding sites where the hens get to pick the males.

Dr. Jordan Schaul

One of several reasons hypothesized for why lek-mating systems evolved is that females prefer the benefits of breeding where multiple males occur, as opposed to sites where solitary males breed.  Leks confer the “safety in numbers” advantage when it comes to the potential for them to be preyed upon. Also, the hens need not search for mates if they employ the lek-mating system. Searching for a mate can be costly for a number of reasons.

There is also the hypothesis that the females like to choose the most attractive males or hotshots, and the less attractive males benefit from associating with with these “studs.”  Everyone benefits, from a wingman right?

Finally, and most likely, leks develop where the resources exist such as food and cover that draw the females.  These hotspots ultimately draw males and females of non-human species, not unlike bars and nightclubs, which attract both men and women.  It may not be an ideal place for a human suitor to find a prospective mate, but I argue that it is the only place to find one, when there are so few to choose among—like here in Alaska.

Sage Grouse (National Geographic Archives)

As mentioned in a 2008 issue of Psychology Today, “[men lek to] display their earning potential and accumulated wealth in addition to their genetic quality.”  We don’t physically display like grouse, rather we showcase our affluence. Up here in Alaska, it seems that men like to show off their trucks. You won’t likely see a Ferarri, but it is common to see an aggregation of fully loaded, rustic and powerful pickup trucks at one of the popular watering holes.

I will follow this post with an interview with my friend Amy Laurent, star of the new hit show on Bravo—MISSADVISED—and author of the new book—8 Weeks to Everlasting.