AbstractIt is 4:25 A.M. as I wake to the ancient sounds of Islam. The tonal qualities of the call to prayer echoing from the nearby mosque have not changed for fifteen hundred years. This ritual, which takes place at regular intervals throughout the day, lends a certain ambience and an unmistakable rhythm to life here in Arabia. My neighborhood's Mosque, like most today, features a modern amplification system. As luck would have it, this one has speakers aimed directly at my bedroom window, lending an unmistakable decibel level to life here as well. I used to wake to the calls of cranes as an aviculturist at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I am still an aviculturist, but now at the National Avian Research Center (NARC) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The sweet sound of cranes is just a memory, five degrees below zero is just a memory too, and on days when the mercury tops out here at 120° F., even a fantasy.
I am here largely because the Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata is not. At least not in the same numbers that occurred in the past. Houbara Bustards are taxonomic cousins to the cranes (both are Gruiformes) and exist as three distinct subspecies: C. u. undulata in North Africa, C. u. macqueeni in Asia, and C. u. fuerventurae in the Canary Islands. This shy and somewhat bizarre bird of steppes and deserts might go largely unnoticed if it were not of such great significance to the falconers of Arabia. NARC is concentrating on breeding the macqueeni subspecies as part of an overall strategy to bolster the wild population of this bird that winters in the Emirates, while continuing to promote its sustainable use as the favored quarry for falconers. Falconry and Houbara
Falconry (the pursuit of wild quarry with a trained hird of prey) has a long and rich history in Arahia. The hunting partner of choice for falconers here has always heen the rugged and beautiful Saker Falcon, and the favored quarry the Houhara Bustard (although desert hares and Stone Curlews are hunted with falcons as well). For tens of centuries a stahle and sustainahle relationship existed hetween falconers and the Houhara wintering here. Bringing game to the hag with a falcon is no easy task. For this reason over-hunting hy falconry had never heen a concern, least of all for the wary Houhara which is well adapted to escaping a falcon's attack.
Since the relatively recent flood of wealth from oil, however, falconers from Arah countries have heen able to pursue their passion for falconry with greatly improved efficiency. Suffice it to say that one can catch many more Houhara with the henefit of dozens of falcons, full-time hird trainers, customized all-terrain hunting vehicles, GPS navigational equipment, trackers to find game, telemetry to find lost falcons, satellite telephones to link them all together, and months of free time to spend "hawking", than one can with a couple of falcons and a trusty camel. Add modern firearms to this equation, along with widespread hahitat degradation, and it is no surprise that Houhara populations have suffered a decline and that continued over-exploitation of Houhara is now a concern.
The National Avian Research Center
The National Avian Research Center is an organization dedicated to the ecologically sustainable use of wildlife. Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Abu Dhahi, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, hrought NARC into existence through Royal Decree in Septemher 1989. While NARC's overall goals include gaining a broader ecological understanding of the UAE's wildlife in general, and birds in particular, one.of NARC's primary objectives is to increase the number of Houbara wintering within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The motivation for this objective is clearly to make more Houbara available in the future for hunting by falconry. But the greater scientific understand of Houbara population ecology and captive breeding/release techniques that are a prerequisite for success will, in the long run, benefit the species as a whole. There are many facets to the challenge which will incorporate programs such as wild bird studies, habitat improvements, and establishment of protected areas ... but the aspect of most interest to Watchbird readers is, of course, captive breeding.
Captivity Presents Unique Challenges
Breeding Houhara Bustards in captivity and releasing them to the wild is a fairly straightforward approach to the task at hand, and like most things avicultural, it is easier said than done! NARC inherited about 150 Houbara from captive stocks already held in the UAE. The majority of these birds were wild-caught by falcons and recovered alive. These were kept for later use to train more inexperienced falcons, a common practice in this region. Unfortunately the birds had been kept in substandard conditions for long periods of time, some were in poor physical condition, and most were terrified of people. There were no records kept for any of these birds. To professional aviculturists the situation was totally unacceptable and its legacy ,still presents many difficulties. How old are these birds? Where do they come from? Are they related' Before any thoughts of large-scale breeding could begin the birds needed to be individually marked, sexed. examined by veterinarians, moved to better facilities, and assessed as potential breeding stock.
In the wild, Houbara breed on open steppes and utilize a type of lek mating system a bit like an expanded version of our prairie grouse species. Males occupy a displaying area, make a spectacle of themselves (as only males can do) to declare themselves to other males and/or to attract females. In most avian lek systems males gather at a specific location (display grounds) and the female selects a mate, copulates with him, and continues on her way having no further need of the male. With Houbara, displaying males are dispersed over many kilometers and when they see a female in their area they chase her and attempt to copulate (she either accepts the overture or runs/flies away). Perhaps the female purposely places herself in the territory of desirable males, or perhaps she just walks along looking for food and finds herself in a male's territory; either way.
Saint Jaime, M., 1994. Houhara, The Saudi Arabian Project. Arabian Wikllife Vol 1, No 2, pp. 6-8.
Seddon, PJ, Saint Jaime, M., van Heezik. Y.. Paillat, P, Gaucher, P. and Comhreau, 0., 1995. Restoration of houbara bustard populations in Saudi Arabiaderelopments andfuture directions. Oryx Vol 29, No 2. pp. 136-142.