At its most basic level, a lek is a gathering of males. In reality, it’s so much more exciting. This gathering of males has a mission — attract a willing member of the opposite sex to mate with. A lek is more like a singles’ bar. But in this singles’ bar, the ratio of males to females can be 20:1 so to be successful, the boys are pulling out all the stops. And for a bird nerd like me, this is a sight to see.
Manakins (family Pipridae) are only found in the neotropics, and Amazonian forests are home to the greatest number of manakin species. Golden-headed and white-bearded manakins are common residents on Trinidad and Asa Wright Nature Center has the most easily accessible leks I’ve ever seen. Right off the Discovery Trail, the forest is buzzing with manakin courtship rituals.
The year-round availability of fruit allows manakins to concentrate on more important activities — impressing the ladies. This calls for elaborate displays. Leks tend to be located right near the manakin’s food source so the males don’t have to travel far to refuel after a frenzied dance. If there aren’t any females near the lek, males will sit side by side in wait. But as soon she approaches, the dancing begins.
Of the two manakins at AWNC, the golden-headed has the more elaborate mating dance. They invented the moonwalk well before Michael Jackson started sliding backwards across dance floors. Their steps go something like this:
1. Dart rapidly from one perch to another and back.
2. Face about with a flick of the wings.
3. Slide sideways or backwards rapidly along the perch with tail raised. (This is the Michael Jackson portion of the dance.)
4. Raise wings horizontally or vertically above the back and jump from perch with wings fluttering.
5. For a little extra emphasis, fly to another perch and return fast with an S-shaped trajectory, land, and end with another backward slide.
The white-bearded manakin’s moves involve more clicking than sliding, and a given male may spend 90% of daylight hours practicing at his lek. First, he clears a “court” on the forest floor with small saplings (young trees) lining the perimeter. Apparently, any debris on the ground is unacceptable. He then leaps from one perch to another with a loud wing snap, similar to the sound of fingers snapping. This is followed by a jump from his perch to the ground and back again, fanning his wings. The finale – he slides head-first down a vertical sapling. All display postures and movements occur in the absence of a female, but when she does appear, there’s a frenzy of activity as multiple males vie for her attention.
If you get the chance to visit Trinidad and AWNC, be sure to hike down the Discovery Trail to see the manakin leks. The boys won’t disappoint.