Deep archives: Lek perspective

Scene from a lek at the Bronx Zoo

Males display in the “Wild Asia” exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, which can only be seen by riding the zoo monorail. The structure behind the birds is the monorail track.

I’ve had some success on this trip after all. The weather was perfect for my model experiments yesterday (sunny, warm, not too much wind), and although I wasn’t able to fit in quite as many trials as I was hoping for, the ones that I was able to accomplish worked perfectly. Of 16 successful trials (i.e. ones where the male danced for the model), 6 ended in a copulation attempt. In California, 3 of 22 trials ended in such an attempt. This apparent geographical difference in Penelope’s popularity is a bit of a mystery (it could be because a number of my California trials were at the end of the breeding season, when males were somewhat less motivated and harder to trick). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that overall she was a hit.

One reason I didn’t get as many trials as I could have was that the Bronx peacocks were the most skittish ones I’ve encountered so far. When I stepped into the nyala enclosure at 7 am yesterday, I had about 2 hours to collect as much data as I could (as many as 20 five-minute trials, I figured). But it took a long time for the males to get used to me being in there. I spent the first hour waiting quietly (and nervously) for one of them to make a move, while they did the same – watching me carefully and no doubt waiting for me to leave. This stand-off shouldn’t be too surprising, though, since the Bronx Zoo birds have enough space to live their entire lives away from people.

This morning, I moved across the Bronx River to work in “Wild Asia”, and the birds there were even more difficult. Happily, though, I was able to get a video of a male reacting positively to Penelope, which will be excellent for illustrating exactly how she worked.

I also made a trip to the “World of Birds” exhibit. They have some pretty amazing animals there – here is a picture of another lek-breeding bird, the lesser bird of paradise:

Juvenile male lesser bird of paradise

Unfortunately, the juvenile male in the picture is not as spectacular looking as the adult (who was nowhere to be seen), but he was moving his wings around in a pretty cool practice display. The next picture is of a palawan peacock pheasant, a close relative of peafowl:

Palawan peacock pheasant

The male peacock pheasant also has iridescent eyespots which it displays for the female during courtship, but in this species the eyespots really are on the tail feathers (unlike the peacock, where the eyespots are on the upper-tail coverts).

My favourite part of the “World of Birds” was not a real bird, however. It was a hallway lined with 6-foot tall photographs of birds eating and being eaten. The hallway led you into a room with more of these grisly photographs, arranged around a 6-foot tall black poster with the following caption:

Is Nature Cruel?

Refreshingly frank in a venue full of children. I must have looked pretty strange taking pictures of it, though.