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U.K./Russia: Bird Enthusiasts Team Up To Reintroduce Rare Bustard To Britain

British conservationists have teamed up with Russian experts on an ambitious project to reintroduce a rare bird to Britain. The Great Bustard (Otis tarda), one of the heaviest birds capable of flying, was last seen in Britain in the 19th century. But it's still found across Europe and in Russia, which will supply the chicks for the project.

Prague, 14 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A great bustard is an impressive bird that can grow to around a meter tall and weigh up to 20 kilograms.

There are still some 50,000 of them scattered in pockets across Europe and Asia, but they died out in Britain nearly 200 years ago due to overhunting and the spread of mechanized farming.

Now a group of British bustard enthusiasts has teamed up with Russian experts to try to reintroduce the bird to Britain. The group plans to fly some 40 bustard chicks from Russia next spring, and release them on grassy Salisbury Plain in southern England, where they used to roam. The conservationists have chosen Russia because the bustard population there is relatively healthy and the birds are close to the original British stock.

Stirling University's Patrick Osborne, in a telephone interview from near Saratov, explained why he got involved: "The great bustard is probably the most dramatic and spectacular of all the grassland birds, it's certainly the largest of the birds, it's a very good flagship species for conservationists to promote the conservation of grasslands in general across Europe. Another [reason] is that there's actually an obligation on [the part of] the British government to consider reintroducing species that are in trouble elsewhere."

Osborne and his colleagues have spent this week dressed in specially made costumes and feeding bustard chicks from a glove puppet. They're disguising themselves in order to prevent the newly hatched chicks from getting used to humans.

That's part of another important side to the project -- saving the Russian bustard population. "A large number of nests are destroyed annually in agriculture and we are only taking eggs from nests that would otherwise be destroyed. So in effect we're not having any [negative] impact at all on the population here. Indeed, we're producing a positive benefit because we're working with our Russian colleagues to promote their conservation," Osborne said.

It's not the first attempt to reintroduce the bird to Britain. Bustard expert Nigel Collar was involved in a previous project some 30 years ago, and though he said he'd be delighted if the new plan succeeds, he has his doubts. "We know it went extinct on Salisbury Plain about 1810. That was a very long time ago, before any tractor was invented. I think the conditions ecologically have changed to the point where I'm not comfortable that I could say that the new project will succeed," he said.

But why are people so keen on this bird that they want to bring it back? Well, the male bustard certainly puts on an impressive mating display. Collar described it by saying: "As he breathes out, the air goes under his tongue and into this [neck] sack and it inflates to become a huge balloon. At the same time, he cocks his tail so that it sits right behind his head. Then he lifts his wing feathers up so that all the feathers underneath show white and the tail feathers behind his head are also bright white, so he transforms himself into what one German author described as a kind of 'pile of snow on sticks.'"

Collar said two counties in England have the bird on their heraldic symbols -- including Wiltshire, where Osborne's chicks will be released. "When you see a great bustard it's such a magnificent animal it inspires people to use the words 'majestic' and 'magnificent' and 'regal' and 'royal,'" Collar said. "It has that kind of heraldic, statuesque, commanding presence, and I think that probably inspires people a great deal to think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have such a superb bird back in our environment.'"

Osborne's group is still waiting on a license from the British government. Once they get that, he said, the first chicks should be released next spring, with more to follow in the coming years.