Tall As a Deer, Huge U.K. Bird Staging a Comeback

James Owen in the United Kingdom
for National Geographic News
May 6, 2003
Salisbury Plain's mysterious ancient stone megaliths, which attract almost a million visitors each year, could soon be joined by another impressive sight—the magnificent great bustard.

The open grassland around Stonehenge in southern England used to be a favorite haunt of the bird. As tall as a deer and weighing up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms)—equivalent to over two wild turkeys—the great bustard is set to return to its old stomping ground.

Twenty chicks will form the nucleus of what conservationists hope will become Britain's first breeding colony for over 150 years. Raised from eggs rescued from the path of tractors in Russia, the birds' release will mark the culmination of four years' work by the Great Bustard Group.

Created in 1998, the charity has teamed up with ecologists from Saratov, on the River Volga in southern Russia, in a bid to reintroduce the bird to the English county it represents.

"The great bustard—Otis tarda—is the county bird of Wiltshire," said David Waters, a former policeman who founded the Great Bustard Group. "It's on the county crest, the heraldic device of the county council, and the badge of the county army cadet force, and the Girl Guides [Girl Scouts in U.S.]. It also features in forms ranging from pub names to school badges."

Despite the close connection, the great bustard and the people of Wiltshire haven't seen much of each other for some while.

One of the last encounters—in January 1856—was recorded by Wiltshire resident Henry Blackmore.

He wrote: "A little boy found [a great bustard] with its leg broken by the side of a field of turnips, near Hungerford, on the borders of Wiltshire. As the bird was fluttering he seized one of its wings, and dragged it nearly a quarter of a mile, until he reached a barn, in which some men were at dinner, one of whom killed it by breaking its neck."

The tale gives an indication of the bird's fate elsewhere in Britain.

The great bustard's tasty meat, size, and rarity meant it was highly prized by 19th-century hunters. Following rain or a heavy dew, when the water-sodden birds had difficulty getting airborne, hunters would chase the birds on horseback with packs of greyhounds.

In eastern England, one game keeper made his name by killing large numbers of the increasingly elusive birds. Using four large guns trained on areas where they fed, he's reputed to have picked off seven of them with a single discharge.

Open Grasslands

As England's open grasslands began to be cultivated and enclosed by farmers, even birds which escaped the hunters gradually died away. Apart from the globally-extinct great auk, the bustard is the only bird known to have bred in Britain that hasn't done so in recent times.

The Great Bustard Group says Salisbury Plain is the best place to get them started again. A grassy plateau covering around 300 square miles (780 square kilometers), it's the closest Britain gets to the Russian or Spanish steppes—the main European strongholds for the species.

Of the two, the group decided on Russia as the most suitable source for the reintroduced birds.

"Genetic tests suggest the Russian birds are more closely related to the extinct British population," said Patrick Osborne, a professor of environmental science at Scotland's University of Stirling, who is working on the reintroduction program.

He says Spain's great bustards have been isolated by the Pyrenees since the last ice age so are genetically distinct from populations elsewhere in Europe.

Anatoly Khrustov, director of the Saratov branch of the Institute of Ecology and Evolutionary Problems, is coordinating the Russian side of the project.

He says even bustards that roam the Russian steppes aren't free from human pressures.

"Bustards are cautious of things like cars but can be quite friendly towards farmers on slow-moving vehicles," said Khrustov. "Farmers have been known to make the most of this—and take the odd one home for the pot."

Nevertheless, he says, conservation efforts in the Saratov region have been quite successful, with the local population numbering between 5,000 and 6,000 birds. Farmers have helped by marking out nests in their fields so eggs threatened by agricultural vehicles can be moved to safety.

Twenty chicks reared by Khrustov and his colleagues will be flown to England this summer. In the future, more will follow.

"Our objective is to bring over 200 birds, which should be enough to establish a permanent population in the longer term," Osborne said.

Set Free

The birds will spend 30 days in quarantine followed by a brief acclimatization period in a release pen before being set free. Human contact will be kept to a minimum to increase the bustards' chances of survival in the wild.

Once on Salisbury Plain, the birds will be heavily protected by armed troops, tanks and helicopter gunships—in fact, the full might of the British military.

That's because Salisbury Plain is the country's main army training area—covering over 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) of wildlife-rich habitat. The dangers of live firing and unexploded shells mean much of the plain is off-limits to civilians—a "no man's land" where vulnerable grassland plants and animals are left largely undisturbed.

"The core area for the released birds will be the area used by the military and the surrounding farmland," said Waters. "The habitat favored by the birds is a mixture of open grasslands, which they need for feeding and display, and arable crops, which they use for nesting."

Waters hopes the bustards will help boost tourism in this rural area, saying: "There's so much more to Salisbury Plain than Stonehenge."

Certainly, a male great bustard in full breeding display is an exhilarating sight.

Known as the "balloon display," the bird twitches up its long white whiskers so they look like an extravagant, waxed moustache. It then launches into a series of strange contortions.

Head and tail arch back until they meet, the wings swivel upside down, while the neck and chest balloon out. The bird seems to turn itself inside out—into something resembling a giant white powder puff. Female bustards aren't the only onlookers seduced by the spectacle.

"The missing jewel in the crown of Britain's natural heritage," is how David Waters describes the great bustard. Jewel or powder puff, Britain's bird watchers should soon be flocking to Salisbury Plain.

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