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What is a Lek?

by Jamie Walker

The word is Swedish. My dictionary defines it as, ‘A patch of ground where animals gather, for males to display and for females to choose a mate.’ It is an arena.

In Europe and North America, many bird species use leks. On moorland, prairie and open bog, birds such as Grouse, Great Snipe, and waders like Ruffs, gather in spring on long-used sites, for males to strut, make noise, inflate their chests, show off fine feathers and fight a little. (Not too much of the latter – the plan is to stay in good health). 

Females arrive quietly, inspect the competitors, indicate their choice – with understated signals that only the birds notice – mate and leave.

At first impression, we do not see leks in Australia. Perhaps the nearest thing performed by our birds is the construction of bowers by many of the familiar Bowerbird species. The male Satin Bowerbird builds an exquisite tunnel-shaped stand, which he decorates with bright blue objects like flowers or (more often these days) stolen clothes pegs.

The bower is a courtship area to which females are enticed. They inspect the structure and, if suitably impressed, will allow the male to mate.

So, the bower is ‘a patch of ground where the male displays and the female choses’. But the male has no accompanying competitors. He doesn’t parade himself in comparison to rivals. The bower’s theatre is fascinating and singular behaviour, but it is not a lek.

The male Paradise Riflebird - which the patient observer may hopefully find in the Mary Cairncross reserve - uses an open, bare branch as his display ground, hopping along it while clapping his wing tips together over his head and posturing extravagantly. But he prefers to avoid competition and will not share his branch.

However, if you visit the higher slopes of some of our hills and mountains during the warmer months, you may notice something extraordinary: the presence of large numbers of restless butterflies. The hills need not be high – Mount Coolum, Emu

Mountain or even a little bump like Howell’s Knob at Maleny, are all sufficient.

These insects are “hilltopping”. Male Swallowtails, Jezebels, Blues and others are gathered to await visits by females. (Apparently, some dragonflies and wasps do the same thing). Make no mistake, this is a lek. There is male performance, display, colour and, ultimately, approval and selection by females. The definition is met.

It is easy to dismiss butterflies as slight, pretty things. Yet, just like “higher” life forms, their existence is driven by dynamic urges and essential social connection. Their hilltopping leks are another of Nature’s superlative schemes to secure continuity. See if you can find one: and show it to your children.

Note: Unfortunately, in some languages, this word has different meanings, unsuitable for family dining table conversation. A Lek is also the standard monetary unit of Albania. You first read it on the Back to Nature pages.



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