Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata)

Synonyms: Chlamydotis macqueenii
  
French: Houbara ondulé, Outarde houbara
Spanish: Avutarda Hubara, Hubara
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGruiformes
FamilyOtididae
GenusChlamydotis (1)
SizeWingspan: 1.5 m (2)
Average male weight: 2.2 kg (2)
Average female weight: 1.2 kg (2)

The houbara bustard is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3). It is also listed on Appendix II of the Bern Convention on European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (4) and on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive (5). The northwest population is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (6).

A striking bird resembling a turkey in shape, the houbara bustard is at its most magnificent during the courtship display. It is a slender bird, with a tuft of hairs in the centre of the crown, and long plumes of feathers drooping over the neck, the uppermost feathers being black while the lower ones are white with black tips (7). The body is pale sandy-buff in colour, with darker brown lines and mottling, while the underside is white (2). Large areas of black and brown occur on the flight feathers and the long, square tail is sandy-chestnut and patterned with four distinct blue-black bars (7). Male houbara bustards are slightly larger than females (2).

There are three subspecies of houbara bustard: Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii is found in the deserts of Russia and the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula, while C. u. undulata is found in North Africa and C. u. fuertaventurae is found in the eastern Canary Islands. They differ slightly in their size and colouration, but are not consistent in their migratory tendencies (8). North African and Middle Eastern birds are resident or partially migratory, moving short distances to find fresh vegetation, whereas other Asian populations are fully migratory (9).

Adapted to arid conditions with little vegetation, the houbara bustard is found in sandy and stony semi-desert regions (9).

A largely solitary bird, the houbara bustard feeds alone or in small groups on beetles, ants, plants (8), and even small lizards (2). Showing remarkable adaptation to its arid habitat, the houbara bustard does not need to drink, and instead receives all the water it requires from its food (2). It will walk kilometres while searching for food, but rarely takes to the skies in flight (2).

In the breeding season, males and females meet only to choose a mate and to breed. Courtship takes place between December and March and involves a sophisticated and flamboyant display (8). While puffing out the ornate feathers on his crest, chest and neck, the male makes long, slow and graceful steps. The male then throws its head back between its shoulders and promptly starts moving frantically in a straight line or in a circle. Abruptly stopping, the male will then stand with all its display feathers erected and throw its head repeatedly upwards while emitting a deep booming call (2). Facing its chosen mate, the male then enters another display before mating, stretching is neck forward whilst its white feathers are erected, walking toward the female by twisting its body from left to right and clapping its beak in time (2).

After mating, the female leaves the male and both sexes remain solitary for the remainder of the breeding season. Between February and April the female lays two or three eggs in a small scrape (8). After hatching, the chicks follow the female for protection as she feeds, as they are vulnerable to predators, including eagles, falcons, foxes, wolves, monitor lizards, snakes and kestrels (9).

The traditional practice of hunting for houbara bustards by Middle Eastern falconers has reduced populations significantly, mainly on the wintering grounds. This over-hunting has been compounded by habitat loss and degradation. The subspecies C. u. fuertaventurae has been particularly affected by habitat degradation as a result of tourist activities and associated development, as well as by military exercises, over-grazing, sand-extraction, and road-development. Further threats include collisions with power lines, and nest-predation by introduced mammals (9).

C. u. fuertaventurae has benefited from improved protection from poaching and improved habitat management within protected areas. C. u. macqueenii has been the subject of several studies into its status, ecology and migration routes. It has also been involved in captive breeding programmes for restocking areas where it is heavily hunted (9). In 2005, an International Action Plan for C. u. undulate was published, outlining a plan which aims to restore, stabilise or increase the population of houbara bustard in North Africa within five years (7).

For further information on the Houbara bustard see:

Authenticated (16/07/2008) by Dr Yves Hingrat, Field Work and Research Coordinator, Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2008)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation (July, 2008)
    http://www.ecwp.org/vo/index.php
  3. CITES (April, 2005)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (April, 2005)
    http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/conventions/bern/
  5. EC Birds Directive (April, 2005)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1373
  6. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (June, 2008)
    http://www.cms.int
  7. Azafzaf, H., Sande, E., Evans, S.W., Smart, M. and Collar, N.J. (2005) International Species Action Plan for the Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata undulata. BirdLife International, Nairobi, Kenya .
  8. Heredia, B. (1996) Action plan for the houbara bustard in the Canary Islands. In: Heredia, B., Rose, L. and Painter, M. (Eds) Action Plans for Globally Threatened Birds in Europe. Council of Europe, Strasbourg. Available at:
    http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/wildbirds/action_plans/per_species_en.htm
  9. BirdLife International (April, 2005)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/search/species_search.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=2769&m=0