Legend has it that when India was selecting a national bird, the great Indian bustard was proposed as a candidate. This suggestion was strongly backed by legendary ornithologist Dr Salim Ali. But fears that its name would either be misspelt or mispronounced to an unsavoury near-homonym, led to the relatively “safer” sounding final choice — the peacock, or male peafowl.
While travelling through the Little Rann of Kutch I wondered whether the same logic was at play among those who referred to the MacQueen’s bustard as the “hoobbara”, even though it was classified as a separate species from the houbara bustard in 2014. In fact, the MacQueen’s bustard is still often called the Asian houbara although the two names are no longer synonymous.
Which brings us to our little-known visitor. The MacQueen’s bustard’s range extends from the Arabian Peninsula to Western India and from the Caspian Sea to the Mongol Steppes in Central Asia. The stronghold of the species is Kazakhstan, where over 50 per cent of the global population is estimated to reside. Like most bustard species of the Otididae family, it prefers short grasslands, making the Little Rann of Kutch the perfect habitat for visiting populations from Central Asia to spend winter in India.
In early December 2019, Juned Malik (naturalist), Aditya Roy (birder and partner at Rann Riders resort), and I were chugging along on the Little Rann in the resort’s jeep, keeping a weather eye on the horizon for this elusive bird. The bird is medium-sized for a bustard, and it is not as immediately remarkable in looks either, at least compared to its more famous Indian cousin the great Indian bustard.
It is further west from our borders, in the Arabian Peninsula, that the MacQueen’s bustard’s story takes on a very unique flight path. Falconry is an integral part of Arabian culture and much has been written about it. But what is not as well known is that the sport has taken a heavy toll on the MacQueen’s bustard’s numbers, as they are used as live bait by falconers.
Sharply declining numbers in the Gulf countries prompted the Government of Abu Dhabi to support the setting up the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) in 1977. This is a non-profit organisation that today has one of the largest species conversation programmes and supervises centres in Africa and Asia that work towards helping restock MacQueen’s bustard numbers across the entire range of the species. The IFHC website tells us that they’ve released over 2.5 lakh birds for either conservation or hunting, but the still-declining numbers indicate it is way more the latter than the former.
As far as hunting this bird is concerned, Pakistan has a large, illegal hunting industry that has hatched around the MacQueen’s bustard or “tiloor” as it’s called across the border. A significant number of birds winter in Pakistan, and that’s when rich sheikhs fly in with their falcons to hunt them as a sport. Airstrips for private planes indicate just how lucrative the business is, and though there are no official estimates, it is said that the hunters often fly in with captive-reared birds in case they can’t locate the wild ones. According to Aditya, sometimes, one can encounter a houbara that doesn’t take flight when you are a few hundred metres away from it. Instead, it lets you get close enough not to need a 600 mm camera lens. This just might be one of the captive-reared-and-released birds that is more habituated to human presence than its born free cousins. As he explained this, Aditya turned to me in the jeep and suggested I pray that we encounter one of the former that evening.
As if on cue, Juned nearly slammed the brakes and excitedly pointed to a patch of grass in the distance. Aditya immediately drew out his binoculars, focussed where Juned was pointing, and exclaimed an unprintable word under his breath. He passed the field glasses to me and when I looked, my jaw dropped. Way out there, walking through the grass, were, not one, not two, but five female MacQueen’s bustards! I’d been prepped on the rarity of sighting even one bird before Juned had even turned the key in the ignition, and I’d climbed in not expecting to spot a single one. And here, before us, were more birds in one go than most birders spot in a spring of safaris. We watched them saunter around for a few minutes before deciding to chance our luck and try and get a bit closer. Sure enough, almost as soon as Juned put the car into first gear, the birds shot off in top gear towards a stand of Prosopis juliflora. This invasive plant the locals call gaando baval has colonised the landscape and wreaked havoc in this habitat.
As the birds took off, we followed in futile pursuit. We kept a safe, non-threatening distance, but the birds were always one wingbeat ahead of us. Somehow, they flew along paths that we couldn’t drive through, and by the time we’d driven around the trees, they’d made off to another area. A few minutes later, we gave up the chase and let these spirits of the grassland go about their peregrinations. I was mildly disappointed at not getting a “great shot” of such a historic sighting. But that feeling evaporated quickly when I focussed on the reason they were reluctant to let us approach close enough for a click. It was proof that we’d had the good fortune of encountering a group of MacQueen’s bustards that were likely born free and hence, still nervous of humans. Their skittishness was a comforting omen for the future of this species.