Birds – The Bustards

The next family that we have to consider comprises the birds known as Bustards and Floricans. Typically they are birds of large size and bulky form, with rather long neck and lank, naked legs, and only three toes, all of which are directed forward. They differ considerably from the typical Crane-like birds and there has been much discussion regarding their proper systematic adjustment, many of the older ornithologists, for example, regarding them as allied to the Ostriches, a view which has little or nothing except mere external appearance in its support. They are undoubtedly a much-specialized group and appear to find their closest of. kin among the Charadriiformes and the Gruiformes. Structurally their most important characters are the three toes, absence of an oil-gland, the presence of after-shafts to the contour feathers, and the split form (schizognathous) of the palate and circular (holorhinal) nostrils. Certain of the forms possess a peculiar guiar pouch, or a highly dilatable esophagus, which may be inflated at the will of the bird, of which more will be stated later. They are all confined to the Old World and are comprised in a dozen genera and about thirty-five species. Although they possess ample wings they are essentially terrestrial in their habits, frequenting chiefly dry, open plains and steppes, on which account they might appropriately be called, as Gadow has suggested, the Steppe-Rails. Their strong legs and feet well adapt them to walking and running, which latter they do with great swiftness, though readily taking to wing when pressed. That the group is one of considerable antiquity is shown by the fact that two fossil forms are known from the middle Tertiary.

The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) may be regarded as typical of the first genus we shall consider. It is the largest European bird, an adult male being about forty-five inches long and weighing in the neighborhood of thirty pounds, while the female is some ten inches shorter and correspondingly lighter. In color the male is sandy rufous above, broadly banded with black across the back, the primaries blackish brown and the remainder of the wing white, as are the three outer tail-feathers. The head is gray and provided on the cheeks with tufts of long, whisker-like feathers, which turn backward and downward; the lower throat is orange-chestnut, which forms a band across the fore neck, while the sides of the upper breast are rufous, barred with black, and the remainder of the under parts pure white. The female lacks the whiskers on the sides of the face as well as the rufous bands on the breast. This species was once a common and conspicuous bird in many of the more open districts of England, but has been exterminated as a resident for nearly three quarters of a century, occurring at the present time only as a rare straggler from the open country of Champagne or Saxony. It was once quite widely distributed over Europe, but is now very rare in France and Greece, no longer known in Scandinavia, and only to be found commonly in central and eastern Europe, central Asia, and northern Africa, although in the latter country it is becoming scarcer. In winter they visit India, during which time they associate in flocks of considerable size ; but on the approach of spring they break up into pairs and resort to the great steppes and plains, either barren or under cultivation, for the purpose of rearing their young. At this season the male has the curious habit known as “showing off,” which consists in inflating the throat pouch before mentioned until the ends nearly reach the ground, and at the same time spreading and raising the tail until it almost touches the neck, and elevating the wings and erecting the individual feathers until the bird looks like a huge ball of rumpled-up feathers. In this attitude it totters and struts about before the female in an exceedingly grotesque manner. It is also very pugnacious at this season, attacking others of its kind and even, it is said, human beings. The object of the guiar pouch has been much speculated about, it formerly being supposed that it was for the purpose of carrying water to the female and young on the dry plains, but it has been definitely settled that it is simply an adjunct in the “showing-off” process, and at the close of the nesting season so completely disappears that its very existence has been denied again and again. It is not present in the female at any season. In a related Australian species the same effect is produced by the enormous dilation of the esophagus, there being no special sac, or pouch. The food of the Great Bustard consists principally of seeds, grain, and the tender shoots of various plants, but occasionally of insects, reptiles, and small mammals. The nest is simply a slight hollow scratched in the ground, usually in an open or grassy situation wherein are deposited the two or three large spotted eggs. In eastern Asia there is a second smaller and grayer species (O. dybowskii).