A bid to reintroduce the great bustard to the UK has scored another success with four wild chicks hatching in this country so far this year. It is the second year that the internationally endangered birds, which have been reared in captivity and released on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, over the past few years, have successfully bred.
The large species, whose males can stand over a metre tall (40 inches) and with a wingspan of up to 2.4m (7.75 ft) had disappeared from the UK by 1832 after being hunted to extinction. The reintroduced birds come from Russia, where eggs are rescued from destruction by farming, and are reared by keepers operating glove puppets, simulating the act of being fed by their mothers, before being flown to the UK at about six weeks old.
This year, at least four chicks are known to have hatched, with the organisers of the project suspecting more mothers could be rearing young out of sight.The arrival of chicks this year consolidates the ”breakthrough” achieved last year, when the long-lived and slow-breeding birds successfully bred for the first time.Last summer two wild-born chicks were reared by their mothers to fledging, although one was killed by a fox shortly afterwards and the other – a male – has not been seen for some months.
David Waters, founder and director of the Great Bustard Group and the driving force behind their reintroduction, said the success showed the habitat was right for the birds to breed, with enough food such as insects available to rear the much bigger males.
He added that male birds which have been released have gone for 18 months without a sighting, and the young male which has not been seen for six or seven months may still turn up.The former policeman has been intrigued by the birds, whose males’ extraordinary display includes fanning their wings out and inflating their necks to reveal white plumage, since seeing them in captivity as a teenager.
”I remember thinking all the interesting birds live in places like Papua New Guinea or the Galapagos,” he said.”Then I remember seeing displaying male bustards, and thinking no matter how far you go I don’t think you will see a better sight in the bird world than that.”Mr Waters founded the Great Bustard Group in 1998 and the first birds were reintroduced in 2004 – with a total of 104 birds released since then.Female bustards, which mature at around two or three-years-old, sat on nests in 2007 and 2008, but it was not until last year that the males, which do not mature until they are five-years-old, were able to mate successfully with them to produce young.
Mr Waters added: ”This year, we are aware of four great bustard nests, and that so far four chicks have hatched.”In spite of their considerable size, nesting females are notoriously hard to find, and thus other females are suspected of nesting in addition to the four we are aware of.”We very much hope these females will turn up with their youngsters later in the autumn, since the mother-offspring bond is especially strong and long-lasting.”
The nest sites of the birds have been kept secret due to fears of pressure from bird watchers, and the eggs marked with permanent DNA glue to deter and help prosecute egg collectors.Dr Mark Avery, conservation director for the RSPB which is supporting the project, said: ”Restoring lost wildlife and lost landscapes to Britain are among the RSPB’s most important objectives.
”The encouraging signs that the return of the great bustard is edging closer is fantastic news.”A small UK population of around 18 birds has been built up under the scheme, but only when the population begins to breed successfully and sustain itself will the project be deemed a success.The successful breeding this year, as well as the increase in the number of nests and hatched young, suggest last year was no fluke, the conservationists said.Dr Avery added: ”There are still some noticeable species gaps in England, but we will strive to restore some of those species which man has thoughtlessly removed over successive generations.”