Posted on Friday, January 6th, 2012
A bustard in the Dévaványa release pen
Hungary is estimated to hold 3% of the world’s great bustards; however, over the last century, a switch to more intensive farming practices, winter food shortages and fragmentation of bustard habitats led to their decline here. Since the 1990s, the population has increased through conservation by the Túzokvédelmi Program (Bustard Protection Program) as well as changes in land-use. In November I visited the Dévaványa Landscape Protection Area (Tájvédelmi Körzet) within the Körös-Maros National Park with Dr. Zsolt Végvári from the University of Debrecen. The Dévaványa Landscape Protection Area was established in 1975 to safeguard Hungary’s largest population of great bustards.
At the project site we met park rangers Tibor Lengyel, László Puskás, and Gábor Czifrák, who showed us around their chick rearing facilities, 6-hectare pen for injured birds and huge 400-hectare release pen. The larger pen is used to release chicks reared at the rescue centre and also supports up to 40 displaying males and 50 females in the spring. Before the release pen was established, this area was intensively managed arable land and only one nesting female was found annually. Since then, the numbers of nesting females has increased, with 14 families observed in 2011. The pen is managed to contain a mosaic of only four arable habitats; 220 hectares is grassland, with the remaining 180 hectares managed as wheat, lucerne, oil seed rape and fallow areas. Around the pen there are tall observation towers, allowing staff to monitor birds inside and around the pen.
The project workers provide information to farmers across the 13,000 hectare Körös-Maros National Park on how to protect females and their nests by modifying their farming practices. However, this is not always possible and around 35 endangered eggs are recovered by the project staff each year from nest sites up to 50 kilometres away.
These eggs are incubated at the rescue station and once hatched, chicks are given individually numbered leg rings and kept inside a small heated area until they are three weeks old. They are then transferred to a larger, outdoor rearing pen which is sown with lucerne and given a variety of food including cooked potato, beef heart, egg, cottage cheese, ground maize and linseed. While in this rearing pen, the chicks have access to a small roosting shed and are walked for up to 2 hours in a long fenced outdoor corridor.
When the chicks are 6-8 weeks old and are ready to fly, they are fitted with individually numbered wing-tags or leg-rings and released into an introductory area at the centre of the 400-hectare release pen. This is a small mosaic of all the habitat types in the pen, bordered by a natural fence of sunflower or maize strips. Released birds can stay around this introductory area for up to two months before exploring more widely in the pen or leaving the release pen entirely and joining up with wild birds outside. Newly-released birds prefer to feed on lucerne before switching to oil seed rape, and will move to grassland areas during sunny weather, where there is a greater abundance and diversity of insects to feed on.
Despite my limited time at the Dévaványa Landscape Protection Area, it was a thoroughly interesting trip and made especially enjoyable by the informative and enthusiastic rangers. I hope the information gathered during this trip, together with strengthening links with great bustard conservation managers and scientists in Hungary, may help to generate new ideas for conservation of this enigmatic species.
Kate Ashbrook, LIFE+ Monitoring Officer