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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. 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,...

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.




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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: