The traveling birdwatcher: Europe’s gloriously strange great bustard (video)
I love going birding in Europe. Part of my love stems from all the glorious food you can have after you go birding, but I also enjoy that there are some bird species over with no equivalency here in North America. One of those birds is the great bustard.
The first time I ever saw them was from afar in Portugal, and they were flying. Flight appeared impossible for this bird, because it’s shaped like a flightless emu. But the huge birds soared into a large field and began to forage, keeping a distance from our birding group.
Then I was in Extremadura in Spain earlier this year, and we had some better looks at these strange birds. Their coloration of rust, gray, amber and white helps them hide in the prairie. Males also have a long, thin, feathery mustache adding to their mystique.
Twenty-seven species of birds currently comprise the bustard family of Otididae, and the great bustard is one of the heaviest, rivaled only by its cousin the Kori bustard. These are the heaviest flying birds. A male great bustard can weigh in at around 44 pounds. Bald eagles can weigh 12 pounds at their heaviest and trumpeter swans and wild turkeys can get up to 30 pounds.
The beefy nature of the great bustard body has led to its demise in certain areas. I understand the bird is quite tasty, and they were hunted out of the United Kingdom, though populations still exist in Central Europe, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan.
When you find bustards, they can put on quite a show. These are birds of open fields and prairie. They’re omnivorous and their large size makes them conspicuous when foraging.
The big show that people want to see is the mating dance. Bustards have some of the largest differences in size between the sexes. Males can be four times larger than a female. The male displays to several and will have a harem during breeding season. The display is a little bit wild turkey, with some aspects of greater prairie chicken thrown in for flair. The birds puff out their tail, body and wing feathers while inflating air sacks. A video of a male gettin’ down is below.
If you want to find one, hire a local guide to take you to see them in places like Austria, Portugal, or Kazakhstan. Bustards are wary of humans, and since they like vast, prairie-like areas, a guide will know the best spots. Try to have a spotting scope to view them. If you don’t want to take a scope to Europe, a guide will have one to get you on the birds.
If you find yourself in Extremadura to view them like me, celebrate your sighting with some of the local food and beverages. I highly recommend the Iberian ham – pigs that feed on nothing but acorns in the months before they are harvested, then they’re cured for three years. And finish it off with local acorn liquor.