For the fifth consecutive year, a batch of great bustards was released yesterday in southern England, part of a project to re-establish the heaviest flying bird in the world in its former range in the UK.
As tall as a deer and weighing up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms)–equivalent to over two wild turkeys–the great bustard was hunted to extinction in England by the 1840s.
Photo courtesy Great Bustard Group
The big bird managed to survive in pockets elsewhere in Europe, including Spain and Russia. But with only 35,000 individuals, it is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Globally Threatened Species.
After decades of failed attempts to breed bustards in captivity in the UK, the Great Bustard Consortium was formed and the British Government authorized it to release up to 40 imported birds a year for ten consecutive years, beginning in 2004.
National Geographic News published an article about the program in 2003.
Chicks are relocated to England each year from a stable population of 8,000 wild bustards in southern Russia.
The 18 young bustards released at the consortium’s site on Salisbury Plain yesterday were able to join up immediately with a small flock of adult birds from previous releases, the consortium said.
The resident group is made up of representatives from each of the previous four years’ releases and includes a female that nested in both 2007 and 2008, though her eggs subsequently proved to be infertile. This was probably due to the immaturity of the males, which do not usually reach sexual maturity until the age of four to five years, the consortium said.
“This breeding activity occurred earlier than anticipated and hopes are therefore high for the future of Salisbury Plain’s Great Bustards. Experience from other reintroduction projects has shown that, when young birds can be released into an established population, the survival rates for the newcomers improve significantly,” the group said in a statement.
The researchers are hoping the birds will start to breed next year and will be observing them to understand more about their complex mating rituals.
Researchers in the department of biology and biochemistry at the University of Bath have been working with conservationists at the Great Bustard Group to manage the reintroduction of the birds to the UK and study existing wild populations in Russia.
The photo on the left was released last year by the Great Bustard Group with the news that, for the first time in 175 years, a wild bustard had laid eggs in the UK. The eggs turned out to be infertile. Researchers were elated, however, that the females had nested.There are high hopes that male bustards will be mature and able to fertilize eggs in 2009.
Photo courtesy IUCN Bustard Specialist Group