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Saving The Great Indian Bustard

(Kalpana Palkhiwala)

A majestic bird and a rare one. There are four species of Bustards in India – The Great Indian Bustard, Lesser Florican, Bengal Florican and Houbara Bustard.

The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps ),  known as Maldhok  is found in India and Eastern regions of Pakistan. It lives in arid and semi–arid grasslands, open country with thorns and tall grass interspersed with cultivation. Apart from Rajasthan, they are also found in Karnataka , Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Ghatigaon and Karera sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh  no longer appear to have any birds, whereas  they used to have a sizeable population there in the past. Karera Wildlife Sanctuary in Shivpuri district, Nannaj and  Shrigonda in Maharashtra and Rollapadu Wildlife Sanctuary near  Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh  have still a few birds of this species.

A large ground dwelling bird it has a long neck and long bare legs like that of an ostrich. It stands at about a metre high and is  large, brown and white in colour. Male and female birds are similar in appearance. The male is deep sandy buff coloured with a  crown on the head which is black and crested. The female which is smaller than the male, has a head and neck not pure white and the breast band is either rudimentary or absent.

It is omnivorous, feeding on seeds, small shrubs, insects, rats, grams, groundnuts or millets depending on the seasons.

The male is polygamous. The female lays only single egg once in a year and incubates it   for about 27 days. Their nests are situated in open ground and males take no part in incubation or care of the developing young. The fledglings tend to remain with their mother until the following breeding season. Males are solitary during the breeding season but may flock in the non- breeding season.

Lesser Florican...
The Lesser Florican (sypheotides indica) is the smallest  bird in the bustard family having 46-51 cms average length. It has small body with longish   bill and legs. The Lesser Florican   breeds in  Gujarat, South-East Rajasthan, North-West Maharashtra and Western Madhya Pradesh. They are also seen  in productive lowland  (below 250 m) and dry grasslands, with scattered bushes and scrub. It has also been recorded in cotton and millet crops. During  non-breeding season some of them visit  South-East India. It is a rare summer visitor to the Terai region of Nepal. Formerly widespread and common, its population has consistently declined  since  1870s. In  1982-1989 nearly 60% decrease was recorded in the bird population which took a turn  and increased by 32% to 2,206 birds by 1994. Besides loss and degradation of its grassland habitat, the population fluctuations are directly correlated with breeding season rainfall patterns. It is susceptible to extinction in the event of severe, prolonged drought.

The Lesser Florican male has speculate-tipped head plumes, black neck and under parts, white collar across upper mantle, and white wing-coveters whereas the female are sandy or cinnamon–buff. In their breeding display, the male jumps into the air above the grass level.  Lesser Florican is found in two sanctuaries in Sailana and Sardarpur, both in Madhya Pradesh.

Bengal Florican...
The Bengal Florican or Bengal Bustard or  Houbaropsis Bengalensis, is a very rare bustard species from tropical southern Asia. It is the only member of the genus Houbaropsis. Very few  adult birds are alive today. It has two disjunct populations, one in the Indian subcontinent, another in South-East Asia. The former is found from Uttar Pradesh  through the Terai region of Nepal to Assam, where it is called ulu mora,  and Arunachal Pradesh. The South-East Asian population is found in Cambodia and adjacent southern Vietnam.

The birds use grasslands near the lake to breed, and move away from the water in the wet season when the breeding grounds are flooded. Similarly, the Terai population seems to move towards  warmer lowland location in winter. Migrations are not long-distance, however, and probably are restricted to a few dozen kilometres. Bengal Floricans live in open tall habitats with scattered bushes. The birds are usually seen in the early mornings and evenings and are most easily spotted in the breeding season of March to August, which is when most censuses of the population are conducted. Particular between March and May, when they give their stunning courtship display, males are far more conspicuous than the cryptically–coloured females, which moreover prefer high grassland rich in sugarcane.

Adult Bengal Florican measure 66-68 cm in length on average. The male has black plumage from the head and neck to underparts. Its head carries a long lankly crest, and the neck has elongated display plumes. The upper side is buff with fine black vermiculations and black arrowhead markings, and there is a conspicuous large white patch from  the wing coverts to the remiges. In flight, the male’s wings appear entirely white except for the dark primary remiges. The feet and legs are yellow, the bill and irides and dark.

Females are larger than the males and have buff-brown colour similar to the males back, with a dark brown crown and narrow dark streaks  down the side of the neck. Their wing coverts are lighter then the remiges and covered in fine dark barring.

They are normally silent but when disturbed utters a metallic chik-chik-chik call. Displaying males, croak and produce a strange deep humming. They have frog-like croaks during display and short whistle when flushed .

Status and Conservation...
Restricted  to tiny fragments of grassland scattered  across South and South-East Asia, the Bengal Florican is the world’s rarest bustard. It is known to have become increasingly threatened by land conversion for intensive agriculture, particularly for dry season rice production. Poaching continues  to be a problem in South-East Asia. The last few years have seen the decline in India coming  to a halt and their numbers in Dibru-Saikhowa and Kaziranga National Park and Dudhwa Tiger Reserve are safe, though at very low levels. Still, its global status is precarious and it was consequently uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered in the 2007 IUCN Red List.

Houbara Bustard...
Houbara bustard, the ultimate quarry of Arab falconers, is seriously threatened. Excessive hunting for falconry, heavy illegal trapping to supply birds for falcon training and a disturbing increase in hunting pressure in Central Asia over the last few years are among factors responsible for the diminishing Houbara numbers.

The Houbara Bustard is 60 cm long with an 140 cm wingspan. It is brown above and white below, with a black stripe down the sides of its neck. In flight, the long wings  show large areas of black and brown on the flight feathers. It is slightly smaller and darker than Macqueen’s Bustard. The sexes are similar, but the female is smaller and greyer above.

Like other Bustards, this species has a flamboyant display raising the white feathers of the head and throat and withdrawing the head. 2-4 eggs are laid on the ground. It is vocally almost silent. This species is omnivorous, eating  seeds, insects and other small creatures.

Population of Houbara Bustard have dropped as much as 40% since 2005. This shy desert bird   could be facing extinction within the next 15-25 years if unsustainable trade and hunting continue.

Conservation Measures...
In 1993, Rajasthan declared a ban on hunting this species, effective for 10 years, and local people were employed in a scheme to prevent hunting in Madhya Pradesh. In 1994, a conservation strategy was published, which proposed management recommendations for fodder-producing grasslands and increased protection   for natural grasslands. In 1996, several sites in Rajasthan were identified for intensive conservation action.

Threats to the  Houbara Bustard  have mounted despite it being classified a protected species in most countries  where it occurs. In addition, it is placed in CITES (Conservation on International  Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which means that commercial trade in live or dead animals and animal parts is totally forbidden.

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