Have you ever made a serendipitous connection between the words you use and the actual meaning or origin of a phrase or term? In my case, I was struck by a sudden burst of enlightenment while sitting in a blind on Easter Sunday. Located on the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, Bluestem Prairie SNA is one of the best places in North America to view a prairie chicken lek. For those who are unaware, a lek is a unique mechanism that facilitates mate choice during a brief reproductive window. Typically, females congregate on a small patch of land where males will dance, display, drum, sing and fight as a way to demonstrate their potential fitness. With characteristics that remind me of graph paper, the lek is carved up into tiny territorial units. The would be suitor competes to maintain the integrity of his plot while attempting to lure a female onto his land. Male bravado is evident by the puffing of chest and feathers followed by many mock charges and idle threats.
While a few mammals participate in leks, this reproductive strategy is relatively common in birds. Studied heavily by ecologists, grouse and their relatives are a textbook species that rely on the lek mating structure. During my two-day visit to the blind at Bluestem Prairie, I was enchanted by the mock charges and almost-battles between competing prairie chicken males. Everywhere I looked, I saw birds daring one-another to cross a border, step into the ring, and take a punch. About one of ten challenges resulted in a physical altercation, but most of these agonistic behaviors were nothing more than mere bluff. Somewhere during my shoot I began to employ the euphemism “chickening out," as the competitors would stare each other down only to run away and fight another day. Like an epiphany, it dawned on me that this phrase… “to be a chicken” was likely derived by someone staring at birds like these, and looking for an explanation to this strange and captivating behavior.
Special thanks goes out to The Nature Conservancy for allowing me to use their observation blinds.
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