Reintroduction or recovery projects

A brief history of the first great bustard captive breeding attempts

Captive breeding has traditionally been regarded as a suitable method for the recovery of threatened wild Great Bustard populations. First attemps to breed Great Bustards in captivity were carried out in Hungary (Chernel, 1904), although first successful reintroductions to the wild took place in Dobrudsha (Romania), where four individuals hatched by a turkey in 1919, were freed after being kept in semi-wild conditions for several years (Rayner, 1942). In later years, similar programs were undertaken in different central European countries, urged by the alarming decrease of Great Bustard populations due to agricultural intensification. The aim of these captive breeding stations was, on one hand, to reintroduce young reared from artificially incubated eggs into the wild and, on the other hand, to create captive groups of breeding individuals that assure the survival of extremely threatened populations. Among those pursuing the former objective, the main stations were Buckow and Steckby in Germany, and Dévaványa in Hungary (Fodor et al., 1981; Dornbusch, 1983a,b; Litzbarsky & Litzbarsky, 1983; Sterbetz, 1986; Farago, 1990). Other attempts were carried out in Portugal (Pinto, 1981), Russia (Ponomareva, 1983), and Slovakia (Randik & Kirner, 1983). Attemps to establish a captive-breeding flock have been made in Spain (Hellmich, 1991), Poland (Graczyk, 1980; 1983; Graczyk et al., 1980), and the United Kingdom (Goriup, 1985; Collar & Goriup, 1980; Osborne, 1985).
Later, BirdLife International established an Action Plan for the Great Bustard in Europe including, among other points, the study and evaluation of the current captive breeding programs, focusing on the survival and reproductive success of released individuals (Heredia et al. 1996).
That year we made a preliminary evaluation of the effciency of these captive breeding programs, in the light of the results obtained from our study of the behaviour of juvenile Great Bustards during their maternal dependence period and their later emancipation and dispersal. We concluded that the success of these captive breeding and reintroduction programs was generally low, or unknown due to the lack of adequate tracking of released birds (see details in Martín et al. 1996). Moreover, young great bustards depend from their mothers in natural conditions for 6-18 months, when they probably learn things necessary for their survival once they are independent (Martín 1997, Alonso et al. 1998). The lack of such maternal dependence period in all past and current captive breeding programs represents an important handicap for the young released. Finally, the delayed reproductive maturity and complicated mating system of this species adds further difficulties to these programs.

 Literature cited:

ALONSO, J. C., E. MARTÍN, J. A. ALONSO, AND M. B. MORALES. 1998. Proximate and ultimate causes of natal dispersal in the great bustard Otis tarda. Behavioral Ecology 9: 243-252.

CHERNEL, I. 1904. Madarak in: Brehm’s Tierleben. Budapest. VI.p. 199-207.

COLLAR N.J. & GORIUP P.D. 1980: Problems and progress in the captive breeding of Great bustards (Otis tarda) in Quasi-natural conditions.  III Miedzynarodowego Sympozjum Hodowla I Restytucja Dropia Otis tarda L. W Europie. Poznan 1980.

DORNBUSCH, M. 1983a: Bestandsentwicklung und Bestandsstützung der GroBtrappe im Einstandsgebiet Steckby, Zerbster Land. 4. Symposium über die GroBtrappe (Otis tarda). Eberswalde, DDR 1983.

DORNBUSCH, M. 1983b: Das Otis tarda-Aufzucht-Freilasssungsverfahren der Biologischen Station Steckby. Verbreitung und Schutz Der Grosstrappe (Otis tarda L.) in der DDR.

FARAGO, S. 1990: Evaluation of ten years work at the Dévaványa Conservation Area Bustard Rescue Station. Scient. Publ. Forest. Timb. Ind. 1989/1: 81-143.

FODOR, T. et al, 1981: Experiences on the repatriation of artificially reared Great Bustards (Otis t. tarda L. 1758) in Hungary. Aquila nº 88. pp: 65-73

GORIUP P. 1985: The 1980 breeding season at G.B. Trust. (U.K.) Bustard Studies nº 2

GRACZYK R., BERESZYNSKI A., MICHOCKI J. 1980: Untersuchungsergebnisse der trappenzucht, Otis tarda L. in Polen in der Jahren 1974-1979. III Miedzynarodowego Sympozjum Hodowla I Restytucja Dropia Otis tarda L. W Europie. Poznan 1980.

GRACZYK R. 1980: Gegenwärtiger stand und untersuchungsrichtungen der zucht und ökologie der GroBtrappe Otis tarda L. 1758. III Miedzynarodowego Sympozjum Hodowla I Restytucja Dropia Otis tarda L. W Europie. Poznan 1980.

GRACZYK R. 1983. Die Aktuelle Situation der GroBtrappe (Otis tarda L.) in Polen. 4 Symposium über die GroBtrappe (Otis tarda). Eberswalde, DDR 1983.

HELLMICH J. 1991. La avutarda en Extremadura. Alytes Monographs, 2. ADENEX, Mérida.

HEREDIA, B., ROSE, L., PAINTER, M. 1996. Globally threatened birds in Europe. Action Plans. Council of Europe Publishing, Strasbourg.

LITZBARSKY, B & LITZBARSKY, H. 1983: Zu Ergebnissen und Problemen der GroBtrappenaufzucht an der Naturschutzstation Buckow. 4. Symposium über die GroBtrappe (Otis tarda). Eberswalde, DDR 1983.

MARTÍN E, 1997. Dispersión juvenil y cuidado parental en la avutarda. (PhD dissertation. Universidad Autónoma, Madrid.

MARTÍN, E.; ALONSO, J. A.; ALONSO, J.C. & MORALES, M. B. 1996. Evaluation of captive breeding as a method to conserve threatened Great Bustard populations. En: Fernández, J. & Sanz-Zuasti, J. (Eds.) Conservación de Aves Esteparias y sus Hábitats, Págs. 131-136, Junta de Castilla y León, Valladolid. 

OSBORNE L. 1985: Progress towards the captive rearing of Great bustards. Bustard studies nº 2.

PINTO, M. 1981: A reproduçao da Avetarda em Portugal. Ensaios de criaçao artificial. Direçao Geral das Florestas.

PONOMAREVA, T.S. 1983: Die Restitution natürlicher Populationen der GroBtrappe (Otis tarda L.) in der UdSSR. 4. Symposium über die GroBtrappe (Otis tarda). Eberswalde, DDR 1983. 

RAYNER, R. 1942: Túzokokról. Nimród Vadászújsáj. III. (XXX) február 1.p. 53-54.

RANDIK A. & KIRNER K. 1983. Die Bewirtschaftung der GroBtrappe (Otis tarda L.) in der CSSR. 4. Symposium über die GroBtrappe (Otis tarda). Eberswalde, DDR 1983.

STERBETZ, I. 1986: Protection of the Great Bustard in Hungary. Ed Dévaványa Station.

Main current projects

Due to agriculture intensification the German great bustard population has suffered a dramatic decline, from the ca. 4000 birds estimated in 1940 to the ca. 50 counted in 1998. Since then it seems the population is slowly recovering, with 104 birds counted in December 2005. There is a high predation rate by foxes, White-tailed eagles and ravens.
A captive breeding program has been running since 1973 to supplement the declining natural population. This program started at the Biological Station Steckby and continued since 1979 at the Nature Centre Buckow (now Bird Conservation Centre of Brandenburg). The eggs are collected from the autochthon German breeding population. In the past only eggs from disturbed nests were collected, but nowadays first clutches are taken systematically (40-74 yearly during the last years) based on the assumption that first clutches suffer most from predation pressure. It has been shown that females usually lay a replacement clutch. The eggs collected are incubated artificially and young birds are fed by hand and moved to increasingly larger pens. On fledging they eventually fly out to join adult groups.
The number of young hatching in the wild is smaller than that reared in captivity, and today over 40% of German great bustards are ringed, which means that most of them were reared artificially.
There is evidence that the artificial breeding program prevented the German population from extinction, and today insemination rate, hatching rate and release success are increasing, although survival of the released birds is highly variable depending on predation pressure. In the last seven years about 39% of the released birds survived until the next spring (Langgemach & Litzbarski 2005, Aquila 112).
More information in,

Dévaványa, in the region of the Körös-Maros National Park, is one of the most important areas for great bustards in Hungary. A Bustard Reserve was created there in 1975. Great bustard eggs taken from nests and replaced with fake ones made of wood are incubated artificially at the Great Bustard Conservation Centre in Dévaványa. Chicks hatched at the Centre are later released in the wild.
More information at Köros-Maros  National Park, Balázs Szelényi,

Russia holds the second largest great bustard population in the world, with an estimated 8000 birds, in the region Oblast, near Saratov, some 1500 km southeast of Moscow.
Since the 1980s the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, a branch of the Russian National Academy of Science, have been collecting eggs from doomed nests and artificially incubating them. Chicks from this scheme were originally used in various captive breeding projects across the former Soviet Union which has so far proved unsuccessful. The Institute is now running a captive rear and release project instead, bypassing the apparent pitfalls of captive breeding, and releasing Great Bustards back into the wild in Russia and also providing the chicks for the UK reintroduction. This project is lead by Dr Anatoli Khrustov.

United Kingdom
Great bustards were once part of British wildlife but they became extinct in Britain in the 1840s, mainly because of hunting.
After a failed trial to reintroduce the species in the UK in the 1970’s, a Great Bustard Group was formed in 1998 specifically to run a new UK reintroduction project.
Great Bustards for the UK reintroduction come from Russia, which holds an estimated 8000 individuals, the second largest population in the world.  Each year a number of young bustards are imported to the UK from Saratov. In this region , a large number of eggs are collected from doomed nests and incubated artificially. When young are 3-4 months old they are sent to UK, where they are released after a period spent at the release pen on Salisbury Plain.
The first 28 young were imported in 2004, 37 in 2005 and 9 in 2006, etc.
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