Bustards have a grey head and neck. There are white feathers on the under part of bird, with a reddish-brown breast band. When alarmed, they make a sharp bark. They are not very prolific breeders: females only lay two or three eggs a year. Females are ready to breed at two to three years of age; males, not until they are five years old.
Bustards today (2004) are most plentiful in Spain, Portugal and Russia.
They were hunted to extinction in the UK. Reintroduction started in 2004, with chicks brought in from Russia to be raised and bred in Wiltshire. By 2009, the birds had begun breeding in small numbers.
Ancient Greeks had Bustards at feasts the way we have turkey. Bustards were part of Medieval Christmas feasts.
They were considered very flavoursome, and because of their impressive size they were a prized, festive dish to serve. The Mayors of Salisbury in Wiltshire used to serve bustard at their inaugural feasts. The birds were cooked just as turkey now is, and were said to taste like partridge.
Bustards were still considered just as desirable after the turkey arrived in the UK in the 1520s. Because of overhunting, by the late 1700s they had begun vanishing from the fields and from under the silver domes on English dining tables. Their scarcity increased their price. In the early 1800s, one would have cost about two guineas. A guinea was worth 240 pence, at a time when the average income of a person in the UK in 1830 was about 20 pence a day, thus requiring 12 days labour just to buy a bustard.
By 1840, they were considered extinct in the UK, though a Mr H.M Upcher of Norfolk claimed to have spotted one on his property in January 1876 in a Fen near Feltwell, Norfolk.
Literature & Lore
“Stuff an olive with capers and anchovies and put it in a garden warbler. Put the garden warbler in an ortolan, the ortolan in a lark, the lark in a thrush, the thrush in a quail, the quail in a larded lapwing, the lapwing in a plover, the plover in a red-legged partridge, the partridge in a woodcock – as tender as Mlle Volnais, the woodcock in a teal, the teal in a guinea fowl, the guinea fowl in a duck, the duck in a fattened pullet – as white as Mlle Belmont, as fleshy as Mlle Vienne, and as fat as Mlle Contat, the pullet in a pheasant, the pheasant in a duck, the duck in a turkey – white and fat like Mlle Arsène, and finally the turkey in a bustard.” — Alexandre Grimod de La Reynière (1758-1838), in L’Almanach des Gourmands, published 1803.
The Romans called the bird “Avis Tarda”, meaning “slow bird”. Pliny mentions the bird: “aves, quas Hispania tardas appellat” (“the bird, which in Spain is called slow”). It’s difficult to know where the slow bit ever came in, as bustards can actually run like heck. They are, however, slow to take off when attempting to fly.
The Portuguese have a habit of swapping in b’s for v’s, so they transformed “avis tarda” into abetarda. The French shortened it to “bistarde”, which in English became “bustard”.
A bunch of bustards is referred to as a “flock”.
De Bruxelles, Simon. Great bustard colony is still fighting to get off the ground. London: Times. 26 September 2008.
Unknown. Great bustard comeback boosted by new chicks. London: Daily Telegraph. 10 June 2010.