Bustards are large, ground-dwelling birds that are endemic to four regions: Africa, Asia, Australia and South Europe and together with floricans and korhaans make up the Otididae family. It’s hard to miss a bustard when you come across one. Though their brown plumage blends well with their typical arid habitat, their height, long neck and heavy build makes them the more conspicuous to the human eye.
On average, bustards are between 37 to 132 cms tall and can weigh anywhere between 0.6-22 kgs. Males are taller and heavier than their female counterparts. As terrestrial birds, their sturdy legs are best suited for functionality with three flat forward-pointing toes and no hind toe. They have broad wings, short tails and flat bills.
Bustards, although very much capable of flight, tend to remain on the ground, even when faced with a predator, at which point they will take to running on foot. Luckily, their keen sense of sight makes it difficult for danger to get too close. Their preference for walking earned them the name “bustard” which is derived from a Spanish word tarda which means “tread”. They can be seen walking about in groups looking for seeds, fruits, leaves and small insects to sustain their omnivorous diet.
Their color ranges from brown to gray and black. The cryptic plumage is designed to help bustards camouflage effectively against predators both on land and air.
Male bustards mate with more than one partner and often have to compete for females during the breeding period. Some members of the family like the Northern Black Korhaan and Kori bustard are known for exhibiting elaborate mating displays including inflation of the throat sac and ruffling of neck feathers. This courtship ritual is usually carried out in higher grounds while female bustards, numbering upto six, play audience.
Keeping in line with their terrestrial nature, bustards’ nests are constructed on the ground. Female bustards can lay up to five spotted eggs which she incubates without help from the male. The chicks can leave the nest as soon as they are hatched and can fly from the age of six.
Of the 26 species of the bustard family, over 21 reside in Africa. The Australian bustard is the only species available in the continent for which it is named for.
Loss of habitat and wide-spread hunting continues to be the main threat facing bustards and are the main culprit for the decline of the bird. Britain lost its last surviving bustard in 1882 although re-introduction exercises have seen two Great bustards hatched in 2009.
Vulnerable species include the Great bustard, African houbara and Asian houbara. Ludwig’s bustard and Lesser florican are classified as endangered whereas the Great Indian bustard and Bengal florican, both found in Indian are critically endangered.
While ostriches are the largest birds in the world, bustards too are notable for their size and have earned a few distinctions.
• Europe’s male Great bustard weighing in at 6-8 kgs and a wingspan of between 2.1 to 2.7m is the heaviest living flying animal in Europe. It is also well known for the great disparity in the size between the male and female. Females are on average about a third the size of the males.
• Reaching nearly 4 feet and weighting up to 18 kgs with a wingspan of between 230 to 275 cm, the male Kori bustard is the heaviest bird in Africa capable of flight.