The name bustard (by derivation, roughly: “the bird that walks”) was originally applied to the most northerly and perhaps least typical member of the family, the Great bustard. The term is however appropriate for the whole family, for all bustards are strictly ground dwellers. The largest members are to the great open plains of Africa and Eurasia what cranes are to the world’s big marshes: slow-breeding, long-lived birds of ancient lineage, reaching considerable size and weight whilst retaining the capacity to fly among birds, the ultimate expression of adaptation to their stable habitats. Sadly, like cranes, they are among the first to suffer once those habitats start being exploited and disrupted by modern man. Africa is the major home of the bustards and only four species do not breed there the Australian bustard, Great Indian bustard, Lesser Florida and Bengal florican.
Within Africa there are two clear areas where different species have evolved: from the Zambezi southwest to the Cape and from the Nile to the Horn, with four species in the former and three in the latter. The korioccurs in both, as do the Red-crested and White-bellied bustards, although the latter two also have populations across theSaharo-Sahelian savanna belt in West Africa, and the White-bellied bustard has another scattered population in Central Africa. The Arabian and Nubian bustards occur in the Saharo-Sahelian zone, extend-in across to the Red Sea coast.
All are rather long-necked and long-legged, with robust bodies and short bills, and have lost both the hind toe and the preen gland that most birds possess. These losses, together with the camouflage patterning (often exquisite delicate) of black on buff, refocus on the upperparts, are presumably adaptations to the dry, open landscapes they inhabit hind claws are associated with birds that perch on trees or bushes and oviform preen (uropygial) glands is used by most birds for waterproofing.
Two small species, little and Red-crested bustards, have relatively short legs and necks. These and most other Epidotic bustards fly with rapidwingbeats; the larger species use slow, deep. Powerful wing beats, but fly deceptively fast. On the ground bustards are strong but usually slow walkers, characteristically nervous and alert: they move into cover at the first sign of danger.
Bustards take their food in a slow, meandering walk through an area of grass-land or scrub. Their diet is chiefly invertebrates, usually snapped up from the ground or off plants, but also sometimes dug up with the powerful bill. Small vertebrates may also be taken, often after a short pursuit and pounce. All species readily eat vegetable matter, especially plant shoots, certain flowers and fruit. Some larger species. Notably Arêtes feed on gum that oozes from acacia trees.
Concentrations of foes. May cause a bird to remain in one spot for some time. In Somalia birds have been observed leaping to snatch berries off the higher parts of a hush, and in Zimbabwe Denham’s bustard has been seen to wade into the water, apparently in quest of young frogs, and to defend a termites’ nest, at which it was feeding, against other birds. Several species gather at bush fires to take fleeing and crippled insects. Bustards haven crop, but their powerful gizzard, long “blind gut” (mecum) and their habit of taking up quantities of grit assist the digestion of food.
No male bustard has been observed to incubate the eggs, an emancipation from parental duties that appears to have led to variety of mating systems within the family, perhaps even within the same species. For example, it seems that Denham’s bustard is monogamous in upland Malawi, whereas in South Africa males seem to mate with several females, the males keeping at least loom (2,3ooft) apart and displaying in response to each other and any passing female. Male Great bustards also operate such a dispersed leek system, but in this species many males appear not to he territorial, moving about instead, keeping their distance from each other, and displaying at various sites.
In this and two other species which do not appear to form pair bonds, the hauberk and Australian bustard, the display before copulation is very long and must often he impeded by rivals territoriality is replaced by simple opportunism and/or a ranking system.
In southern Africa, birds in the genusEupodotis with black under parts occur inquire dense grassland and savanna, give striking aerial displays, and apparently hold group territories within which one pair breeds. The newly hatched young of all species are well developed (precocial) and very soon leave the nest, but they are fed bill-to-bill by the mother initially and remain in her company for some months after hatching. Palaearctic species are notably sociable and sometimes occur in flocks the remainder are more solitary, although some are commonly found in small groups.
Bustards are little known, largely because of the difficulty of studying nervous, well-camouflaged, slow-breeding birds which tend to desert their nests if once alarmed. This susceptibility to disturbance is a major cause of their decline, especially in northern parts of the family’s distribution where grasslands are coming under ever more pressure from agriculture. Great bustards can tolerate a degree of disturbance indeed they can only have colonized Europe thanks to man’s felling of the forests butte mechanization of agriculture and the reduction of croplands to monocultures byte use of herbicides and fertilizers have been disastrous for them.
Farming of the steppes reduced the Russian population from 8,650 birds at the start of the 1970s to an estimated 2,980 by the end of the decade. Similarly, the little bustard is now nearly extinct almost everywhere except the Iberian Peninsula, as a result of the disappearance of herb-rich grasslands.
It is this loss of virgin habitat that has brought all three Indian species to the brink of extinction. Both floricans are seriously endangered. The Bengal species survive only in a handful of protected areas in a widely fragmented chain along the foothills of the Himalayas (the Kampuchean population has not been seen since its discovery in1928), while the Lesser Florida appears tube restricted to tiny scattered patches of grassland (” videos”) in the far west of India, maintained as reserve grazing but in no other way protected. In the Himalayan foothills the grasslands have gone to tea estates, while in western India they are being converted to pasture; in neither case can Florida concerned survive the change.
Populations of the Great Indian bustard, though perhaps more tolerant of agric-culture, have been steadily declining for decades. It now numbers less than 1,000 but, having recently been the subject of a hunting controversy, commands a new popular interest in its survival and is cur-gently showing signs of recovery in Rajas-than. The decline of its closest relative, the Australian bustard, is commonly attributed to continuing remorseless, indiscriminate shooting from the earliest days of European settlement, but it seems certain that the conversion of its habitat to farmland is the major factor in its disappearance.
The decline of the hauberk is plainly the direct result of hunting. This is the one species of bustard that figures strongly inhuman culture, as the most prized quarrying of the Arab tradition of falconry. In recent years, oil wealth and technology have vastly increased the scale and efficiency of such Hunting, so it is feared that in many parts of its range, the houbara is almost completely wiped out.
Unfortunately, bustard hunting by Arabs appears to be growing in other parts of Africa, notably the Saharo-Sahelianzone, and certain other species, particularly the Nubian bustard have suffered alarming declines as a result. No other purely African bustard is known to be seriously at risk; although the restricted ranges of the blue and little brown bustards must be cause for sustained vigilance. Moreover, throughout Africa the pressure to grow more food is unrelenting and it cannot be long before some of these peace-loving ground dwellers emerge as new candidates for extinction.
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