Inglourious Bustards


Picture source: The Great Bustard Group

On Salisbury Plain, in the rolling folds of the Wiltshire countryside, an extraordinary old English occupant runs on two legs about the flatlands, watched anxiously by men with binoculars.

And it marvels under the extraordinary, nay, almost unfortunate, name of the Great Bustard.

The name is thought to derive from ‘Bustarde’ and ‘Bistard’ which dates back to at least the fourteenth century, having been recorded as a surname in 1391.

Although the Greeks, for example Pliny The Elder, called the Bustard Otis.

The male of the species is probably the heaviest living flying animal, reaching an average weight of 16kg. The Great Big Bustard could square up to a man on a dark night and cause him a batsqueak of unease. Especially if he (the man, that is, not the Great Bustard) had had several pints of ale.

The female is typically half the size of the male, which must be interesting. Size matters, I feel certain, to a lady Bustard, though how that works in practice I am too squeamish to conjecture. However warm relations are between Mr and Mrs Great Bustard, it is the first year of life which proves the greatest challence for little Bustards everywhere.

A whopping 80 per cent of chicks founder in that first crucial year. It does not do to lay one’s eggs on the ground when Mr Fox and Colonel Badger and Old Man Hedgehog are about.

Trophy hunters took one look at this great big bird, back in the nineteenth century, and decided they would look well stuffed in the drawing room. And so the Great Bustard disappeared startlingly fast, an easy target. Their very name means ‘slow bird’, though they can put on a sprint if they feel like it. And by the 1830s, there were no more of those  bustards in existence.

And the plains lay silent, devoid of the huge birds which used to herd together in same-sex groups called droves. 

That was, until 2003, when a deal was done with The Russian Federation to secure a few Great Bustards from the Steppes, for release over a trial 10-year period. And every year, since 2004, a few more Great Bustards have joined their collective on Salisbury Plain, the designated site for reintroduction.

I met one face to face, you know. Two, actually. At the Hawk Conservancy in nearby Andover.

And in a eureka moment, I could see plainly that those prehistoric giants, the dinosaurs, had left their mark on this huge avian curiosity. I stood there gawping, because here – unnervingly- stood a creature that time had forgot.

Though the Great Bustard Group have done a jolly good job getting Time to write a few judicious post-it notes to help it remember.

For Middle England, The Great Bustard has become something of a soap opera. A Big Brother, if you will. BBC’s Springwatch has turned the camera’s on the private lives of the Bustards, Kardashian-style.

Slowly, and surely, the Great Bustard is gaining a clawhold back in the British Countryside, leaving it once again, after two centuries, open to be the butt of bustard jokes. No matter that it has no opposable claw, and is therefore useless on any perch; what care we for the fact their chief call seems to be gruff nasal barks and also a soft “umb, umb” sounds?

The bustard is back. And with any luck, he’s here to stay.


Image via the Great Bustard Group at


43 thoughts on “Inglourious Bustards

  1. I can tell that you enjoyed writing this post Kate – haha – the title is fantastic. It warms the cockles of me heart to see those bubba bustards in the wilds of England 🙂 thank you for sharing this uplifting good news story.

  2. *shakes head* Only in Britain could you com-Plain of having to dodge a Russian bustard Custard with Crumble and Rhubarb!
    Birds that size are enough to make eagles decide to switch their diets to birdseed.

  3. I can’t believe that I haven’t seen these creatures before. Perhaps I have and have forgotten but really, those furry heads or that poofy mating dance – I doubt I could forget either. Thanks Kate.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog post and watching Springwatch. Is Salisbury Plain the place where Henry VII and Richard III clashed? If so, I think future male chicks might be named Richard and Henry. The chicks are lovely. The head and neck of the adults remind me a bit of ostriches.

    1. that was Bosworth Field, Gale, in the north. You’ll be hearing a bit more about that soon, I predict, when they come clean about whether the bones they have found in Leicester are really Richard III’s.

  5. If I found myself practically standing eye to eye with a giant bird when I was three sheets to the wind I think I’d suffer a bit more than a “batsqueak of unease” (that’s a term I’m probably going to steak from you). Of course, I am glad that there’s been a resurgence of bustards. I like their name as well as the name of this post, Kate.

    1. You know understatement is our thing in England, Lame. I’d give anything to see a squaddy, three sheets to the wind, come up afainst a bustard. Thing is, I’m not sure the bustard would be too thrilled.

  6. Very interesting, Kate… Loved the names especially of the first two chicks, though one hopes they don’t end up on someone’s dessert table before they can do their bit toward increasing the population. The transformation of the male bird courting was amazing – “like a vicar in a tutu” (hilarious!)

    1. Springwatch is such a fabulous programme. They ahve Autumnwatch too. But no Winterwatch *sigh*. We just have to sit here and wait the freezing temperatures out. I wonder how the bustards are doing today- we’re expecting our first serious snow fall of the winter…

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