The largest bird in Europe loses flight: it is becoming extinct

Great bustard male in an alfalfa field. Photo: Wikipedia

It is so big and heavy couldn’t actually fly. But she flies. Although it is very difficult to do so. That’s why she does it late and slowly. It’s the late bird (otis late) spoken of by the Latinos. It’s our bustard. A jewel of the Eurasian steppes. But it goes from skull. Lose the flight, it’s dying out.

And we are to blame, Oh surprise. Because we are destroying their ecosystemsthose dry treeless plains where you can walk without hindrance, but which we have gridded, converted into irrigation, filled with infrastructure, poisoned with our industrial crops.

The data is terrible. In the last 15 years its world population has sunk by 35%, and that was already very depleted after decades of local extinctions.

They are not unfounded or exaggerated alarms. The alert comes from the National Museum of Natural Sciences of Madrid (MNCN-CSIC). It is scientifically proven with a study that has just been published in the journal Bird Conservation International. The decrease, which means losing more than 3% of the population each year, has been confirmed andn 9 of the 17 countries where the species is present. In China and Russia, 89% and 72% of all bustards have already been lost.

A group of male Great Bustards photographed in Marchamalo (Guadalajara). Photo: Carlos Palacin

8,000 bustards less in Spain

Although the decline in populations in Spain has been much less, almost 30%, the case of the Iberian Peninsula is of particular concern, since 70% of the great bustards live here of all the world.

“These data mean that from the between 44,000 and 57,000 individuals that we estimated there were in 2005, we have now had between 31,000 and 36,000 individuals in the world,” explains MNCN researcher Juan Carlos Alonso. “The loss of more than 8,000 individuals in our country in less than two decades is very worrying, since Spain has long been the main bastion of this species on the planet, which is why we now have a great responsibility to stop its decline. ».

The disaster of the new agrarian policy

According to experts, one of the problems that the great bustard has to face in our country are the changes in European agricultural policy (PAC) which is favoring crop intensification, after eliminating fallow land in 2008. Not having these areas between the crop fields is causing the decline of many populations of great bustards and other steppe birds,” warns Alonso.

“By eliminating fallow and other uncultivated plots, these birds are unable to find enough food for their young, with a consequent decrease in their reproductive success.”

If this negative trend continues in the world population of bustards as a whole, scientists warn that it should change the status of this speciescurrently vulnerable, to move to the category of threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The effects of applying conservation measures

The demographic status of the Great Bustard has only improved significantly in Germany and Austriathanks to strict conservation measures that have been applied since the end of the last century, when both populations came to the brink of extinction.

Great bustards inhabited the Eurasian steppes for thousands of years, but after the disappearance of the natural steppes, today they only survive in areas with extensive cereal cultivation. It is one of the largest birds in Europe and the heaviest among those that still retain the ability to fly.

The MNCN has been working on the Great Bustard project for more than 30 years, which focuses its efforts on the study and conservation of this species.

Urgent action needed

The researchers propose the urgent adoption of conservation measures, such as the implementation of agri-environmental programs to improve habitat qualityvigilance and tightening of sanctions to prevent poaching in some Asian regions, and the burial or diversion of certain sections of power linesin order to reduce deaths by collision, the main cause of non-natural mortality of this species.

“The recovery of the German populations shows that, when measures are taken, the situation of the species can improve; the important thing is to implement them before the decline is irreversible”, concludes Alonso.

Reference article: Alonso, JC and Palacin, C.(2022). Alarming decline of the Great Bustard Otis tarda world population over the last two decades. Bird Conservation International DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S095927092200003X

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