1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bustard

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BUSTARD (corrupted from the Lat. Avis tarda, though the application of the epithet[1] is not easily understood), the largest British land-fowl, and the Otis tarda of Linnaeus, which formerly frequented the champaign parts of Great Britain from East Lothian to Dorsetshire, but of which the native race is now extirpated. Its existence in the northern locality just named rests upon Sir Robert Sibbald's authority (circa 1684), and though Hector Boethius (1526) unmistakably described it as an inhabitant of the Merse, no later writer than the former has adduced any evidence in favour of its Scottish domicile. The last examples of the native race were probably two killed in 1838 near Swaffham, in Norfolk, a district in which for some years previously a few hen-birds of the species, the remnant of a plentiful stock, had maintained their existence, though no cock-bird had latterly been known to bear them company. In Suffolk, where the neighbourhood of Icklingham formed its chief haunt, an end came to the race in 1832; on the wolds of Yorkshire about 1826, or perhaps a little later; and on those of Lincolnshire about the same time. Of Wiltshire, George Montagu, author of an Ornithological Dictionary, writing in 1813, says that none had been seen in their favourite haunts on Salisbury Plain for the last two or three years. In Dorsetshire there is no evidence of an indigenous example having occurred since that date, nor in Hampshire nor Sussex since the opening of the 19th century. From other English counties, as Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Berkshire, it disappeared without note being taken of the event, and the direct cause or causes of its extermination can only be inferred from what, on testimony cited by Henry Stevenson (Birds of Norfolk, ii. pp. 1-42), is known to have led to the same result in Norfolk and Suffolk. In the latter the extension of plantations rendered the country unfitted for a bird whose shy nature could not brook the growth of covert that might shelter a foe, and in the former the introduction of improved agricultural implements, notably the corn-drill and the horse-hoe, led to the discovery and generally the destruction of every nest, for the bird's chosen breeding-place was in wide fields—"brecks," as they are locally called—of winter-corn. Since the extirpation of the native race the bustard is known to Great Britain only by occasional wanderers, straying most likely from the open country of Champagne or Saxony, and occurring in one part or another of the United Kingdom some two or three times every three or four years, and chiefly in midwinter.

An adult male will measure nearly 4 ft. from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail, and its wings have an expanse of 8 ft. or more,—its weight varying (possibly through age) from 22 to 32 lb. This last was that of one which was recorded by the younger Naumann, the best biographer of the bird (Vögel Deutschlands, vii. p. 12), who, however, stated in 1834 that he was assured of the former existence of examples which had attained the weight of 35 or 38 lb. The female is considerably smaller. Compared with most other birds frequenting open places, the bustard has disproportionately short legs, yet the bulk of its body renders it a conspicuous and stately object, and when on the wing, to which it readily takes, its flight is powerful and sustained. The bill is of moderate length, but, owing to the exceedingly flat head of the bird, appears longer than it really is. The neck, especially of the male in the breeding-season, is thick, and the tail, in the same sex at that time of year, is generally carried in an upright position, being, however, in the paroxysms of courtship turned forwards, while the head and neck are simultaneously reverted along the back, the wings are lowered, and their shorter feathers erected. In this posture, which has been admirably portrayed by Joseph Wolf (Zool. Sketches, pl. 45), the bird presents a very strange appearance, for the tail, head and neck are almost buried amid the upstanding feathers before named, and the breast is protruded to a remarkable extent. The bustard is of a pale grey on the neck and white beneath, but the back is beautifully barred with russet and black, while in the male a band of deep tawny-brown—in some examples approaching a claret-colour—descends from either shoulder and forms a broad gorget on the breast. The secondaries and greater wing-coverts are white, contrasting vividly, as the bird flies, with the black primaries. Both sexes have the ear-coverts somewhat elongated—whence doubtless is derived the name Otis (Gr. ὠτίς)—and the male is adorned with a tuft of long, white, bristly plumes, springing from each side of the base of the mandible. The food of the bustard consists of almost any of the plants natural to the open country it loves, but in winter it will readily forage on those which are grown by man, and especially coleseed and similar green crops. To this vegetable diet much animal matter is added when occasion offers, and from an earthworm to a field-mouse little that lives and moves seems to come amiss to its appetite.

Though not many birds have had more written about them than the bustard, much is unsettled with regard to its economy. A moot point, which will most likely always remain undecided, is whether the British race was migratory or not, though that such is the habit of the species in most parts of the European continent is beyond dispute. Equally uncertain as yet is the question whether it is polygamous or not—the evidence being perhaps in favour of its having that nature. But one of the most singular properties of the bird is the presence in some of the fully-grown males of a pouch or gular sac, opening under the tongue. This extraordinary feature, first discovered by James Douglas, a Scottish physician, and made known by Eleazar Albin in 1740, though its existence was hinted by Sir Thomas Browne sixty years before, if not by the emperor Frederick II, has been found wanting in examples that, from the exhibition of all the outward marks of virility, were believed to be thoroughly mature; and as to its function and mode of development judgment had best be suspended, with the understanding that the old supposition of its serving as a receptacle whence the bird might supply itself or its companions with water in dry places must be deemed to be wholly untenable. The structure of this pouch—the existence of which in some examples has been well established—is, however, variable; and though there is reason to believe that in one form or another it is more or less common to several exotic species of the family Otididae, it would seem to be as inconstant in its occurrence as in its capacity. As might be expected, this remarkable feature has attracted a good deal of attention (Journ. für Ornith., 1861, p. 153; Ibis, 1862, p. 107; 1865, p. 143; Proc. Zool. Soc., 1865, p. 747; 1868, p. 741; 1869, p. 140; 1874, p. 471), and the later researches of A.H. Garrod show that in an example of the Australian bustard (Otis australis) examined by him there was, instead of a pouch or sac, simply a highly dilated oesophagus—the distension of which, at the bird's will, produced much the same appearance and effect as that of the undoubted sac found at times in the O. tarda.

The distribution of the bustards is confined to the Old World—the bird so called in the fur-countries of North America, and thus giving its name to a lake, river and cape, being the Canada goose (Bernicla canadensis). In the Palaearctic region we have the O. tarda already mentioned, extending from Spain to Mesopotamia at least, and from Scania to Morocco, as well as a smaller species, O. tetrax, which often occurs as a straggler in, but was never an inhabitant of, the British Islands. Two species, known indifferently by the name of houbara (derived from the Arabic), frequent the more southern portions of the region, and one of them, O. macqueeni, though having the more eastern range and reaching India, has several times occurred in north-western Europe, and once even in England. In the east of Siberia the place of O. tarda is taken by the nearly-allied, but apparently distinct, O. dybovskii, which would seem to occur also in northern China. Africa is the chief stronghold of the family, nearly a score of well-marked species being peculiar to that continent, all of which have been by later systematists separated from the genus Otis. India, too, has three peculiar species, the smaller of which are there known as floricans, and, like some of their African and one of their European cousins, are remarkable for the ornamental plumage they assume at the breeding-season. Neither in Madagascar nor in the Malay Archipelago is there any form of this family, but Australia possesses one large species already named. From Xenophon's days (Anab. i. 5) to our own the flesh of bustards has been esteemed as of the highest flavour. The bustard has long been protected by the game-laws in Great Britain, but, as will have been seen, to little purpose. A few attempts have been made to reinstate it as a denizen of this country, but none on any scale that would ensure success. Many of the older authors considered the bustards allied to the ostrich, a most mistaken view, their affinity pointing apparently towards the cranes in one direction and the plovers in another.

(A. N.)

Endnotes[edit]

1 ^  It may be open to doubt whether tarda is here an adjective. Several of the medieval naturalists used it as a substantive.