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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 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’.
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’.
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.
Listen to Chris Packham on BBC Sounds describing the great bustard.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Records show that the great bustards at the museum were donated by:
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.
Pictured below: ‘Mammal Taxidermy Display’ by Curious Expeditions. Licensed with Creative Commons.
Males great bustards perform spectacular courtship displays, gathering at a ‘lek’ or small display ground to try to impress the females.
The great bustard has a dignified slow walk but tends to run when disturbed, rather than fly.
The hen-bird on display at The Salisbury Museum was one of the last great bustards to be eaten in the town!