The Salisbury Museum presents:

Great Bustards

Wild Life in the Red

Flying on the edge of extinction

The great bustard became extinct in Britain in the 19th century. Like the sawfish from Poole Museum, loss of this species was largely due to collectors and trophy hunters. But there is hope. Wiltshire is the only place in the world where bustards have been successfully reintroduced.

The objects behind the story

The four great bustards at The Salisbury Museum were donated by various people between 1871-1919.

They date back to Victorian times, the golden age of trophy hunters. Many bird watchers of the 1800s carried guns, and proved their prowess with carcasses rather than photographs. 

One of the male birds on display at the museum was recorded in a Dinton sale catalogue as being a ‘large goose’.

Great bustards display

Belly buster!

The museum’s hen-bird is said to be one of the last great bustards to be eaten in the town.

It was served at a dinner for ten people by E T Stevens, Director of the Salisbury Museum in 1871. One of the guests described the bird as ‘extremely tender, the breast like plover, and the thigh not unlike pheasant’.

Hen bird in great bustards display

Really big birds

Great bustards are the largest land birds in Britain. They are also the heaviest flying bird alive today. A full-grown male bird may weigh as much as 18 kilograms (three times your average turkey!) and have a wingspan of almost two metres.

Males are much bigger than females (this is called sexual dimorphism). They can weigh four times more than the females.

Great Bustard with purple number 5 tag
Great bustard adult male displaying breeding plumage on Salisbury Plain. Photo: Great Bustard Group, David Kjaer.

More great bustard facts

  • Great bustards can live for up to 20 years in captivity.
  • They usually lay two to three eggs, each slightly smaller than a tennis ball.
  • Chicks are well camouflaged and if threatened, will stay motionless on the ground.
  • Great bustards are usually silent but may make deep grunts when angered or alarmed. 
  • They have a slow, dignified walk but when disturbed, tend to run before launching into flight.
  • They are omnivores, eating leaves, seeds and grains, as well as insects, lizards and frogs. 

Listen to Chris Packham on BBC Sounds describing the great bustard.

Great bustard chick
Great bustard chick. Photo: Great Bustard group.

What the heck is a lek?

In spring, male great bustards compete for the females by performing spectacular courtship displays. The area where they gather to put on their show is called a ‘lek’.

Male great bustards displaying while females watch

On the edge of extinction

Great bustards were once very much part of British wildlife. They became extinct in the 1840s, mainly due to collectors and intensive agriculture. They have suffered similar dramatic declines in other countries. Portugal and Spain now have about 60 per cent of the world’s population of great bustards.

Great bustards are currently listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Nature Conservation.

Wessex - a hope for the future?

The Great Bustard Group formed in the 1990s to research the possibility of reintroducing these magnificent birds to the rolling Wiltshire downland. In 2004, they released the first birds on Salisbury Plain, and there have been annual releases ever since.

The eggs are collected in Spain from abandoned or vulnerable nests. They are artificially incubated, then the chicks released into the wild. All the work is carried out under a government licence. 

The project has resulted in a self-sustaining population of around 100 birds, the only successful reintroduction of great bustards in the world.

Juvenile great bustard in flower meadow
A juvenile great bustard released in early August 2014. Photo David Kjaer.

Delving into DNA – stuffed birds help scientists

The great bustards on display at The Salisbury Museum helped the Great Bustard Group with their  reintroduction programme. Scientists took DNA samples from them, and others across the country, then compared them to the DNA from European great bustards.

The results showed that the closest living match to the original British population was the Spanish great bustards. This made it possible for the group to use Spain as a source of great bustard eggs.

How you can help great bustards and other ground-nesting birds

  • Donate to or volunteer for the Great Bustard Group. Or join the organisation.
  • Join an RSPB campaign such as Revive our World.
  • Keep dogs on leads when birds are nesting from March to August. The eggs and chicks of group-nesting birds are very vulnerable to dogs – a curious dog could be enough to scare a parent bird into abandoning a nest.
  • Stay on paths or tread carefully when walking in grassland.
  • Dispose of your litter carefully – plastic, balloons, cans and glass can be a fatal for birds, as well as other wildlife.
Great Bustard female on Salisbury Plain with chick
Female great bustards. Photo: Great Bustard Group.

Stuff them!

Records show that the great bustards at the museum were donated by:

  • Female bustard, 1871, Mr E Leywood
  • Male bustard, 1871, Mr Glysman-Pinckney
  • Male bustard, 1916, Mr Newall
  • Male bustard, 1919,  Mr Erlysman Pinching

The museum has a range of other taxidermy specimens, but they are no longer displayed.

Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals. It has been practised since ancient Egyptian times, but the craze for making the specimens look as lifelike as possible took off in Victorian times, after London’s Great Exhibition, 1851. 

Two taxidermists at work
'Job Opportunity Three' by Atomic Mutant Flea Circus, licensed with Creative Commons.

The art of stuffing birds (not for the faint-hearted!)

  • Taxidermists study live birds, noting the way they stand and hold their wings. This helps create a life-like exhibit.
  • They remove the skin from the dead bird  – like peeling an orange – but carefully so the feathers aren’t damaged.
  • Then they clean the legs, wings and skull from the inside out, ensuring there is no fat or muscle tissue left.
  • After washing the skin, they create a model body, using a combination of wire and solid materials.
  • Lastly, they reposition the skin around the model body, arranging the feet and wings, and inserting glass eyes. (So stuffed animals aren’t actually stuffed!)

Pictured below: ‘Mammal Taxidermy Display’ by Curious Expeditions. Licensed with Creative Commons.

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Wild Life in the Red

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Sawfish are also called carpenter sharks...but they are rays, not sharks!

There’s also a species called a sawshark, but that’s, well, a shark!

What the heck is a lek?

Males great bustards perform spectacular courtship displays, gathering at a ‘lek’ or small display ground to try to impress the females.

Road Runner!

The great bustard has a dignified slow walk but tends to run when disturbed, rather than fly.

Belly Buster!

The hen-bird on display at The Salisbury Museum was one of the last great bustards to be eaten in the town!

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