Having said that the leks were dying down in a blog post earlier in the week, there was still some serious interest on the display grounds at six o’clock this morning, and one greyhen had to work very hard to get the attention she was after amidst a sea of testosterone and pouting.
The cocks were very pleased to see her, but none of them could quite focus on the job in hand. They preferred to fight amongst themselves, and they set up a constant squalling as she picked her way daintily through the wet grass. She even crouched down by one cock and presented herself to him three or four times, but he was so enjoying the fight and the esprit de corps of his associated brothers and pals that she lost interest and wandered away. Photographs reveal that she had her wattles up, which indicates extreme excitement and arousal, but the draw of the battle was too much for her would-be suitors. As it was, a greater black-backed gull came swooping over the lek at around 6:40 and all the birds moved off in a quick circuit of the in bye fields before landing again – but when they came back, the greyhen was not with them.
I wrote earlier this month about the critical mass of excitement and enthusiasm generated by the sound of the lek, and the fact that this sometimes seems to be a barrier to successful mating. When you’re used to hearing one or two cocks calling at a time as I am in Galloway, the massed pipes and drums of twelve or twenty take some getting used to. The call becomes a mesmeric, almost hypnotic hum when sung in chorus; a buzz that can make your chest ring – no wonder the cocks get carried away.
The biggest leks I know of in Scotland usually hold around thirty blackcock – above this number (and often below it), smaller leks start to form in the surrounding area. In almost seven years of my black grouse obsession, I’ve never seen more than thirty four cocks in what could be described as a single lek, and I have sometimes wondered why twenty will lek together on one side of the glen and twenty others half a mile away on the other. There are all kinds of complicated reasons why packs of blackcock form as they do, but it is interesting that these packs tend not to grow beyond a certain size. There are historical records of British blackgame flying around in packs of several hundred, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway, but the modern trend is to have several smaller packs rather than one massive one.
I’m beginning to wonder whether one of the mechanisms behind this aversion to massive gatherings is that the sound and excitement generated by so many cocks becomes mesmerising and overwhelming. Perhaps the delight of fighting and the hypnosis of the song casts a distracting spell so that actual mating becomes less of a priority. You certainly start to see hens behaving strangely on large leks (as per the lekking hen), and it may well be logical that leks can grow in size beyond their functional optimum, actively impeding their own productivity. Obviously, mating still takes place on the bigger leks, but it is notable that there are often signs of frustration and dysfunction where you might assume everything was running smoothly. Newer, smaller “satellite leks” are often made up of younger, less dominant birds, but they might end up getting more of the action because they are more able to concentrate on the job in hand. An interesting theory, and one to explore further.