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

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