Friday, June 4, 2010

What the Heck is a Lek?

Have you made a trip to the Park recently to discover our little secret? If not, let us introduce you to our newest exhibit and its distinguished inhabitants: Ruffs.

Visitors are now treated to a rare sight in North American zoos, as our group of 19 birds is the largest in the country. In fact, only one other facility in the U.S. – the San Diego Zoo – displays Ruffs, and we are happy to be able to join them in educating the public about this spectacular species.

Ruffs are named for the dramatic collar of feathers that encircles the male’s neck during the breeding season. Reminiscent of the fashionable “ruffs” worn by Europeans in the 17th century, these collars are impressive to behold.

Ruffs are also unusual for the variety of plumage colors and patterns among individual males during the breeding season. In the winter months, it is hard to distinguish males from females. But when summer arrives, individual males develop a breeding plumage in shades of black, brown, rusty red and white – all in unique combinations and patterns. This phenomenon is thought to be a means of identification, unlike most bird species, which use vocalization to distinguish one from another. 

Three of our male Ruffs beginning to come into breeding plumage.

But perhaps this species is most remarkable for the fact that they are the only “lekking” sandpiper. A lek is best described as an arena where male birds gather for the purpose of competitive breeding displays. For example, in the summer, groups of Ruffs will migrate North to their breeding grounds in Northern Eurasia. Once there, males will come together on a daily basis at a particular spot and compete for the opportunity to mate with a female.

Dominant, or “resident”, males are dark in appearance and aggressively defend a small territory within the lek. “Satellite” males have lighter plumage with white ruffs and, although they do not defend a territory, they are tolerated in the arena by the resident males.

With Ruffs, there is a third group of breeding males. "Faeder" males mimic females in plumage and behavior. They do not possess the colorful feathered collar of most males and do not perform any breeding displays. Instead, faeders roam between territories posing as females, and covertly mate with females when an opportunity arises.

At the leks, males perform a number of courtship displays such as “Wing-fluttering”, a “Strut-walk”, or “Flutter-jumps” to name a few. Females visit the leks to mate with the male of her choice. Afterwards, she leaves and assumes all responsibility for the care of the eggs and chicks. The male’s job is done.

Other lekking species include Sage Grouse, Prairie Chickens, Musk Ducks, Birds of Paradise, and Hermit Hummingbirds.

Breeding Ruffs primarily eat insects, but this diet varies during migration and in winter based on food availability, and may include small crustaceans, fish, grains and grasses. Here at the park, our group is fed a commercial diet for sea birds.

Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park is taking advantage of this unique learning opportunity and is participating in an on-going Ruff behavioral research project with East Carolina University and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

So next time you visit the Park, be sure to stop by and check out our Ruff exhibit. It is located along the path leading to the Beaver Pond Blind.

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