The Living World encounters the Great Bustard
At five years old Fergus is beginning to feel like a male, he spent the previous years looking like his mother, distinctly female. He's as tall as a man's waist and testosterone has deepened his voice and developed his brain in a way to give him a greater repertoire of noises. When sexually aroused he can now turn his wings and tail inside out in a big puff of white feathers and inflate a balloon in his neck and erect whiskers near his beak in a display that can be seen by females ffrom over a mile. Fergus is a Great Bustard (Otis tarda) extinct in Britain for 177 years, but no longer.
The down draft from Chinook helicopters make the grass swirl like a turbulent green sea. Soldiers run out of the back door and nearby tanks have cut deep tracks through the grassland plain. The odd boom of heavy guns provides the final military touch to this scene on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, the home of the Great Bustard in southern England. This area of chalk downland is "...pretty much as it was..." says Dave Waters, founder of the Great Bustard Group"...thanks to it being a military training ground..." and the first site chosen by the group for the licenced re-introduction of Great Bustards since their extinction in Britain in the mid 1800s.
Fergus will never be released in the wild. He and another older male live in captivity at the Hawk Conservancy Trust on public view as ambassadors of the species. Fergus was hand reared in Russia where there are still wild populations and he was brought back to the UK by Waters. It was this spring he entered sexually maturity for the first time and was screened off from his companion, the older male, who made short shrift of Fergus when Fergus wanted to show him how good a puff ball he can do.
Great Bustards are fabulous looking birds. Arguably the largest flying bird in the world, they have a wing span of two-plus metres and by getting airborne at twelve kilograms in weight they are certainly up there with Mute Swans and the Wandering Albatross. There have been some reports of Great Bustards getting in later life to over twenty kilograms, but at that weight they would be flightless. The closest relative, albeit a distant one, are the cranes, not turkeys as many people think. Their extraordinary display is a visual one, they want to look as conspicuous as possible on the vast grassy plains of Southern and Eastern Europe, where sound on its own is less effective to attract females.
They lek. Lekking is a relatively rare behaviour in the animal world, which has evolved in a few species of mammals, birds and fish - it's basically a marketplace for males to show off their wares. The Great Bustard lives on open ground, and in the breeding season the males exploit every little rise around, and tirelessly puff themselves, directing their glam costume over and above the grasslands. Females drop in and egg them on by their very presence - they are there to shop for genes. It's often the case that the all the females will choose only a few of the males. That's the free market for you. After mating, the males have nothing whatsoever to do with either the female or the chicks. The single chick reared by the female, often from a clutch or two or three eggs will stay with her for about a year, and like her mother, will wander around feeding on seeds and arthropods.
2009 is the first year that Great Bustards have been born in the wild. Lionel Kelleway, presenter of The Living World, saw the chick and mother who presumably incubated the egg, living free on Salisbury Plain. The chick, he said, "...looks like an ostrich." They spotted the head and neck of the mother periscoping above the sea of grass looking "like the Loch Ness Monster" retorted Dave Waters.
Eleven years since the formation of the Great Bustard Project we now have this spectacularly large bird living wild again and what's more, they are breeding. Tentative beginnings - but the county bird of Wiltshire is back and who knows, before long, under their own steam may get back to their other historic strongholds of Yorkshire and East Anglia - But surely it doesn't need to be a military exclusion zone so we can all go and see them.
But Fergus will be there, probably for the next twenty years, to drop in and see.
Julian Hector is Editor of Radio in the BBC Natural History Unit
- You can hear Lionel Kelleway's encounter with Fergus and the Salisbury Plain Great Bustards on The Living World tomorrow morning at 0635 or, of course, listen again afterwards.
- The Living World archive is one of the wonders of the Radio 4 web site.
- Radio 4's Best of Natural History Radio podcast includes The Living World.
- Some pictures taken for the programme by Mary Colwell.