Extinct birds to return to Britain

June 25, 2004

Ghost suits and puppetry skills are helping Stirling University researchers reintroduce the Great Bustard to Britain 175 years after it died out here.

Patrick Osborne, senior lecturer in environmental management, is due to arrive in London soon with 40 Russian bustard chicks that will be reared on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

Salisbury Plain was the birds' last stronghold before they were hunted to extinction for food and sport. Mature birds can be more than 1m long and weigh 20kg.

Research assistant Anna Fraser said a reintroduction attempt 30 years ago had failed because the birds had become too tame to survive in the wild because of contact with humans.

Ms Fraser will therefore feed the birds from behind a screen using a puppet shaped like a mother bird's head. The researchers will wear ghost-like shapeless reflective suits to prevent the chicks becoming used to humans.

Ms Fraser and Dr Osborne will also use a stuffed fox to teach the chicks to avoid predators. They will play the distress call of adult birds when the chicks see the fox and may also spray them with a foul-smelling substance.

Some 40 chicks a year are expected to come to Britain from Russia in the ten-year project, funded by the university and the Great Bustard Group, an organisation jointly supported by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Sustain the Plain.

After a few months of being reared in confinement, the radio-tagged birds will be released into the wild. All the data will go to the university for analysis.

But despite human help, the future of the Great Bustard in Britain is far from assured. Only a quarter of the chicks are likely to survive.

Ms Fraser said: "Because they are so big and heavy, it takes them a long time to get into the air, and predators have time to catch them. They don't have a toe at the back like a thumb, so they can't perch in trees for safety. And their manoeuvrability in the air is very limited, so sometimes they fly into electricity wires and telegraph poles."

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