The Houbara Bustard: a bird of African desert areas


The houbara bustard is a very elegant but very discreet bird. You have to have an eye to spot it in the landscape. Follow us to learn more about this bird, living especially in African desert areas …

The houbara bustard in the otidiformes family

Bustards alone constitute a family of birds: that of otidae. They are birds qualified as terrestrial. This means that they spend a lot of time on the ground walking. But they are still able to fly if needed.

Their preferred environment is a dry place with short vegetation. They resist very well to high temperatures (60 ° C).

Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata) is divided into 2 subspecies with specific geographical areas:

  • Chlamydotis undulata undulata can be seen in North Africa, hence its other name of the African houbara bustard. There is a separate species called the Asian houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii),
  • Chlamydotis Undulata fuertaventurae occurs in the Canary Islands. This bird was also chosen as the symbol of the island of Fuerteventura.

Description of the houbara bustard

The size of the bird varies between 55 and 75 cm and its wingspan between 1.35 and 1.70 m. The average weight of males is 2.2 kg, that of females being 1 kg less.

The houbara bustard blends into its surroundings, without its appearance being any. On the contrary, it is a very beautiful bird adapted to desert landscapes. This plumage is said “cryptic”: This means that the complex arrangement of colors and patterns provides the animal with effective camouflage during the day, when it remains motionless on the ground. In adulthood, this bird therefore sports a pale sand-colored plumage, punctuated by speckles and dark brown stripes. Its belly is white, its gray speckled neck. White and black feathers, filamentous and erectile, longer in males, are found on the neck, chest and top of the head. The tail has four blue and gray stripes. The underside of the bird is pale without being white, the legs are olive-green or straw-yellow. The iris is yellow.

The variety fuertaventurae is a little smaller, has warmer colors and more pronounced patterns. The Asian species is a little paler and the feather pattern more dotted. Finally, it only displays 3 colored bands on the tail.

Environment and diet of the houbara bustard

Like all bustards, the houbara bustard tolerates heat very well and its organism is well suited to living in a semi-desert environment, loving the steppe plains. Therefore, this bird don’t drink, hydrating itself through the plants and animals that make up its diet.

Considering its beautiful wingspan, this bird flies very well. This also allows the species to be able to cover distances of 800 km for the migratory species. But in everyday life, the bird prefers to walk and run. The houbara bustard looks for its food during the day, but more actively at sunrise and sunset, to limit exposure to extreme heat. In the Middle East and Africa, houbara bustards move little. It is especially the birds living in Central Asia which are the most migratory.

The houbara bustard mainly eats plants (65% of the diet in fall and winter and only 35% in spring and summer) ants and beetles, as well as other arthropods, more occasionally small vertebrates such as lizards.

Reproduction of the houbara bustard

The period of the love parade extends from January to May. A male mates with several females, but females only with a single male: this is called the polygyny.

At the time of reproduction, the males gather in the same place and parade. Females make their choice and copulate to fertilize their eggs, after which they go off to lay eggs and then raise the young on their own. The laying usually takes place between March to June, with a peak in late April. This period is subject to variations depending on environmental conditions.

In North Africa, females lay between 1 and 4 brown, green or olive eggs, themselves speckled with dark brown to be as invisible as possible, because they are laid on the ground in a hollow. Females often settle near a bush, to hide and limit the exposure of the nest to wind and sunlight.
It takes 23 days for the eggs to hatch. The young are able to perform small flights after 30 days, but stay with their mother until they are 2 or 3 months old. The females and the young then join the males.

The assembly sites for the parade are the same from year to year. The display of the males is very spectacular because they must come out of the mass and attract the attention of the females. This is what the long black and white erectile feathers on the neck, chest and crest are for: they stand up as the male walks slowly with his beak raised. The demonstration continues with a run in which he folds his head back onto his back. The white and black ball that the male then forms is clearly visible in comparison with his daily camouflage. If the male does not have a female’s attention, he abruptly stops to emit a sequence of 2 to 8 low-frequency calls called booming and start walking again and then running, etc. These movements are done during the cooler hours of the day. During the night, the bird is satisfied with the booming.

Threats to the Houbara Bustard

Illegal hunting, overgrazing, intensification of agriculture and even the development of tourism have a considerable impact on the activity of these birds. In 2004, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) included the houbara bustard on the list of endangered species. A fund for the conservation of the houbara bustard was established in 2006 in Abu Dhabi. This particular interest is explained in particular by the status of bird hunted by traditional Arab falconry, an activity listed in the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by Unesco. Protective measures taken in the Canary Islands and Morocco have been followed by a significant increase in populations, which gives hope for the survival of the species.