The Booming Prairie Chicken

Each spring, many birders and naturalists travel to western Kansas and hunker in the grass for hours until dawn, at which point they are rewarded with a truly show-stopping performance. They are here to see Lesser Prairie Chickens, the charismatic Great Plains birds famous for their elaborate courtship dances. These iconic birds are threatened by habitat loss from agriculture and development, so in order to help conserve them, researchers are trying to learn more about how these birds use grasslands to thrive and reproduce.


Male (left) and female (right) Lesser Prairie-Chickens (Wikimedia Commons).

These mating rituals are a key research focus for those studying Lesser Prairie Chickens. During breeding season, all the males gather together in one spot and try to dance their way into the hearts of some lovely hens; this phenomenon is called a lek. “Lek” is a funny word that refers both to the behavior and to the physical place where the birds gather. Right now, it’s poorly understood what factors drive where a lek pops up on a landscape. This is a critical knowledge gap, and insight into the birds’ reproductive habitat requirements will help landowners and conservationists to protect and restore their habitat. Carly Aulicky, a Ph.D. candidate working with Dr. David Haukos in the Kansas State University Division of Biology, is getting to the bottom of where these leks form and why they form where they do. Carly led a discussion related to her research with Lesser Prairie Chickens at the Science on Tap event on January 23.

Carly talks with attendees of January’s Science on Tap. Inset: a map of male and female chickens on a mosaic habitat from the night’s activity.

Differences in male and female reproductive roles may drive where leks occur. Male and female Lesser Prairie Chickens have vastly different roles in reproduction, so they use the landscape quite differently. Males want to attract a mate and be seen: during the breeding season, they are easily distinguished by their brightly colored eyebrows, inflated air sacs, and ostentatious neck feathers. They also like to be standing in short grass so they can be seen far and wide. Females, however, leave the lek and prepare to become solo parents. Unlike the males, they spend most of their time in tall grass that will hide their chicks from predators. These two facts lead to the hotspot hypothesis: certain spots on a landscape provide both short and tall grass to meet both the male and female birds’ needs, and these places are most likely to support a lek.

Carly’s work looks to test this hypothesis, and to do so she must track where Lesser Prairie Chickens go. Because the female hens blend into the tall grasslands and are seldom seen, Carly’s team has developed an ingenious solution to track these elusive birds: GPS. Each female bird is outfitted with a backpack-like tracker that transmits the bird’s location several times per day. These females can wander more than 500 km2 during a season, and these backpacks can map their movements for their entire lifespan. Carly and her team integrate these detailed movements with land use cover maps (see inset) from the landowners they work with, and they assess whether female movements on the landscape drive where males establish their lek.

Aulicky chicken
Carly’s team outfits female Lesser Prairie Chickens with GPS backpacks that track their movements.

So far, Carly’s data support the hotspot hypothesis: leks usually form on the edge of fields with different management regimes, such as a boundary between an ungrazed (taller grass) and heavily grazed (shorter grass) prairie. These results make it easier to anticipate where future leks may pop up, and it gives Carly’s lab a chance to work with landowners to restore and protect prime lek habitat. Kansans love these birds, but Carly’s research suggests that they need specialized habitat requirements to mate successfully and thrive as a species. Her work in the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit allows her to collaborate with private landowners and support the persistence of these iconic Great Plains birds.

In addition to Carly’s work on where leks form, her research also explores what factors control how long these leks persist, the traits of the birds that visit leks, and how prairie chickens operate socially.

For more information on Carly’s work, visit her website ( or follow her on Twitter (@CarlyAulicky).  To see a short video about Lesser Prairie Chickens, visit To hear more about science research happening in your community, attend the Science on Tap series, run by the Sunset Zoo and Tallgrass Taphouse.





Caitlin is a Ph.D. student in the Division of Biology studying the effects of climate manipulations on tallgrass prairie ecosystem processes.

Growing Up Prairie: Cowbirds, Predators, and Baby Birds in Kansas Grasslands

When we think about human growth milestones – crawling, walking, teething – we know that every child is a little different. You may have started talking earlier or later than your siblings or your cousins, even though you are closely related. Maybe your older sibling got tall really quickly and was a star in youth basketball while you didn’t hit your athletic stride until you got into swimming in high-school; as humans we don’t expect these differences in individual development to ultimately affect our respective health and success as adults. Growing and developing at different speeds is something we observe in other animals as well. However, differences in the rate of development might be even more important in animals if they have to deal with dangerous or challenging environments. Continue reading “Growing Up Prairie: Cowbirds, Predators, and Baby Birds in Kansas Grasslands”

Drought And The Prairie

This summer eastern Kansas has been in an extreme drought. But what exactly does it mean to be in a drought, and did you know that there are several types of drought often not discussed? Generally, a drought is a period when an area receives below-average amounts of rain/snow. Droughts can last months, years and even decades (decadal droughts are called “megadroughts”). However, not all droughts are equal and differ in their impacts on society, plants, animals, and the landscape. Continue reading “Drought And The Prairie”

“Beautiful things kill People all the Time” – Dr. Nicholas Wallace

A beautiful blue and green mass with stars covering its surface, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is ironically beautiful. Not only is HPV pretty, it is also very small. All viruses, like HPV, are small, consisting only of genetic material and protective coatings made of fats and proteins. Due to this simplicity, the only way viruses can replicate and spread is by infecting other organisms’ cells. Viruses are so reliant on their hosts that some have evolved to be entirely specialized on one species. In particular, HPV is dependent on humans to replicate. Continue reading ““Beautiful things kill People all the Time” – Dr. Nicholas Wallace”

Drought and draughts: Hopper discusses stream fish responses to climate change

Fish, believe it or not, need water. Though this may not be a shocking revelation, it does make predicting what might happen to fish when the waters they depend on disappear rather simple. Imagine being confined to a small, swelteringly hot room with a limited amount of oxygen to breathe that nearly disappears overnight. You cannot escape, and you realize that you are ill-equipped to survive very long under such conditions. That scenario does not sound very pleasant, does it? In the years ahead, scientists expect climate change to increase both the length and number of drought events here in the Kansas Flint Hills. But how will aquatic organisms like fish fare under these drier future climatic conditions? As the sweltering summer heat and the historic drought that accompanied it lingered on, this question spurred researchers at K-State to investigate. Continue reading “Drought and draughts: Hopper discusses stream fish responses to climate change”

Dams, diets, and endangered fish

Freshwater is necessary for human society in many ways, especially as a water supply for farming, industry, cities and towns. The most common way people have found to make water readily available is by building dams, which stop free-flowing streams and rivers to create reservoirs of standing water. While dams have been important for human population growth and major technological innovations, dams often negatively affect many of the animals and plants that inhabit rivers. Continue reading “Dams, diets, and endangered fish”

Thirsty Plants: How African grasses shield themselves from drought

Africa is famous for its wide-open spaces that are home to charismatic wildlife, such as giraffes, elephants, and rhinos. For ecologists, these wide-open spaces are an opportunity to study systems that have limited industrial human impact compared to the areas many of us live and work in. Many ecologists are interested in how large animals influence the landscape as well as how organisms survive in harsh environments. For me and 8 other ecologists from Kansas State University and Oklahoma State University, the opportunity to study how grasses survive drought inspired our recent trip to Botswana. Continue reading “Thirsty Plants: How African grasses shield themselves from drought”

Dancing in the rain: the nitty gritty of field work in the rainforest

As a kid, I loved playing outside. Since I’ve grown up (or at least gotten older), one would think that opportunities to splash in mud puddles and roll down hills might have diminished. On the contrary, I have carefully selected my career to maximize the time I spend out of doors, rain or shine. I study White-ruffed Manakins (Corapipo altera), an adorable bird that lives in the tropical forests of Central America (learn more about these birds from the recent post on Dr. Alice Boyle’s Science on Tap). To study the effect rain has on the breeding behavior and social hierarchies of male manakins, I spend four months of the year in gorgeous Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio in northern Costa Rica. I spend my days catching manakins, finding the areas where males perform elaborate courtship displays for females, and observing their displays and interactions. This is what I tell people when they ask what I do all day in the forest, but it really feels like I’m just playing outside and if I were to elaborate a bit on each of those activities, the real story of what happens in the field starts to emerge… Continue reading “Dancing in the rain: the nitty gritty of field work in the rainforest”

Greedy Plants: Water use and nighttime transpiration in the tallgrass prairie

This post is a highlight of a research article recently published by K-State alum Dr. Kimberly O’Keefe and her PhD advisor, Dr. Jesse Nippert.

On the Biology Division office front desk sits a small bowl of candy. Students often grab one or two pieces on their way in and out of the office, as expected, but you would not necessarily expect a student to take the whole bowl. Likewise, you would not expect other organisms to use more resources than they need, not necessarily because they have manners, but because it is not efficient to gather more resources than necessary. Yet recent evidence suggests that in some grasslands, certain plants may be doing just that—absorbing more than they need to cripple their neighbors’ success. These greedy plants are not hoarding candy, but water, which is essential to life. Continue reading “Greedy Plants: Water use and nighttime transpiration in the tallgrass prairie”

Different stories, same conclusion: how evolution is sometimes like a “choose your own adventure” book

When I was growing up, I really enjoyed “choose your own adventure” books. The adventures in these books would start out with the same problem and allow you to make decisions that would affect the story’s outcome from there. For instance, you might start out at the entrance to a cave and have to decide whether to go in or walk in the opposite direction. Typically, these different decisions would lead to different outcomes, although occasionally two or more stories would converge on the same ending. Continue reading “Different stories, same conclusion: how evolution is sometimes like a “choose your own adventure” book”

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