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Protecting the great bustard

April 6, 2018

If you've never heard of the great bustard, it's probably that there's no room for them where you live. The large bird is under threat. United Nations expert Tilman Schneider explains why, and what we can do about it.

Großtrappe Otis tarda
Image: imago/imagebroker/C. Naumann

DW: What is a great bustard?

Tilman Schneider: In Europe, the great bustard is the heaviest flying bird. It can weigh more than 15 kilograms [33 pounds].  In one German region, they jokingly call it the "Brandenburg ostrich," although it's not related. The bustard family [of birds] live in mostly open landscapes, and would have a problem maneuvering in dense forest.

So is being weighty an advantage, or a disadvantage?

When it comes to predation, it's good, because only larger predators can attack the adult bird. But the eggs and the chicks can still be taken by smaller predators like foxes, raccoons or even crows and ravens.  

This is partly due to human impact. We have removed top predators in many places, like for instance the wolf, which would have reduced the number of foxes.  And with the eradication of rabies, fox populations have increased in some areas.

Read more: Germans divided over return of the wolves

These great bustard chicks are being raised at a breeding station in Hungary
Young great bustard are vulnerable to predatorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Wothe

Why does the UN treat these birds as a flagship species?

The great bustard lives in open landscapes. Here in central Europe, that means wide areas of agricultural land used non-intensively, meaning a lot of the fields left fallow. There must be enough insects to feed the chicks. So the great bustard benefits from organic, or at least less-intensive agriculture, which doesn't use too many fertilizers and no pesticides. These lead to a decrease in plant species, and therefore less insects and biodiversity in those areas.

That's why the great bustard can be a flagship species for using those landscapes in a less intensive way, thus providing a good basis for other species to survive as well.

Where do you find great bustards in Europe?

The largest populations are located in Spain (around 30,000 individuals), and in central Europe — mainly in Austria, Hungary and the Carpathian Basin. 

Tilman Schneider
Schneider is a specialist for migratory birds at the United Nations/Convention on Migratory SpeciesImage: UN/CMS

On the other hand, we just learned at a meeting here in Germany that there's a dramatic decrease mainly in parts of Ukraine and Russia, where there are apparently problems with implementing management and conservation measures for great bustards. Observers have reported a very dramatic decrease in numbers — so it seems intensive agriculture and inadequate conservation measures have dramatically damaged the populations in those areas.

In the central/eastern part of Europe, population numbers are still low; but in general in Austria, Hungary and Germany, there's a positive trend. The species in the 1970s and 1980s was down to almost a couple of individuals. In Germany, there were only 59 birds. Now, they've recovered to 259.

Read more: 'Dramatic' decline in European birds linked to industrial agriculture

So what were the Germans doing right?

Over the last two decades, a lot of conservation steps have been carried out. In the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt there are protected areas, and there's less intensive farming, and also very good collaboration between stakeholders like farmers, hunters and other land-users.

The main thing is to restore the habitat the great bustard depends on, with enough food to raise chicks in the breeding season. There were also reintroduction programs to support existing small populations. And farmers left more fields to grow into natural meadows instead of sowing crops all the time.

Great bustard in flight
Because great bustards fly so low, they are at risk for collision with electrical and traffic infrastructureImage: Imago/blickwinkel/P. Hofmann

These birds are endangered. Apart from intensive agriculture, what are the main threats?

The main threats are power lines. These birds are heavy and fly at a rather low altitude. It's very difficult for them to see power lines while flying, so there's a high number of fatal collisions. Studies have also indicated that wind parks, also railway cables or even roads, are a danger because they act as barriers and lead to a general fragmentation of landscape. 

That makes things difficult. We humans don't want to do without our electricity?

Yes. But there are very good approaches especially in central Europe, to bury powerlines underground for example. That is a very expensive management measure, but it's the best strategy.

There are also measures like marking powerlines better, so they are recognizable for birds.

Read more: King of the skies: The return of the eagle

Is there anything we consumers can do to ultimately help the great bustard to survive?

Yes — supporting organic farming, which leads to a wider diversity of plants and insects, is a very good way to help them. You can also avoid using too much fertilizer and pesticide. Our consumer behavior can certainly have an impact.

Tilman Schneider is associate programme officer at the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (UN/CMS) in Bonn. 

The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile and edited and condensed for clarity.