Great Bustards – Bird Protection in the “Havelländisches Luch”

In 1996, the Great Bustard was in Germany on the verge of extinction. Only 57 individuals were left. Through a breeding program, habitat conservation and predator management, the population grew again to over 300 animals. Today, many birdwatchers come to the Havelländisches Luch to observe the courtship of the Great Bustards. A nature experience that would no longer be possible without the commitment of the conservationists.
Great Bustards in Havelländisches Luch in Germany - Großtrappen in Deutschland

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Great Bustard Courtship – like Cotton Balls on the Meadow

In spring, a visit to the great bustards in the Havelländisches Luch is particularly worthwhile. On the still short meadows, the birds can often be seen with the naked eye. Especially when the males puff themselves up and become white cotton balls in the landscape. During their courtship ritual, the males turn their tails up on their backs and the white under plumage becomes then visible from afar. In addition, they let the wings hang, pull in the head and put up their whiskers. Which female bustard could resist this?

The bustard courtship is one of the most impressive experiences of the local wildlife. But it was almost too late for Germany’s largest flying birds.

Great bustards are the largest flying birds in Germany and they are also among the heaviest flying birds in the world.

Males can reach a wingspan of 2.4 meters and a weight of up to 16 kilograms. 

Great Bustard courtship
The great bustard courtship behavior looks like cotton balls on the meadow
Great Bustards in Havelländisches Luch, Brandenburg
The male great bustards can reach a body length of about one meter.

Characteristics of Great Bustards

Body length: males up to 1.05 meters, females about half that size
Wingspan: males up to 2.4 meters
Weight: males between 8 and 16 kilograms, females up to 5.3 kilograms
Life expectancy: up to 20 years old
Distribution: Steppes between Morocco, Spain and Mongolia. In Western and Central Europe in cultivated steppes, arable land and grassland. Spain is considered the main distribution area of the Great Bustard. Here live with approximately 30,000 animals well half of the world-wide continuance.
Population in Germany: 300 animals
Protection status in Germany: Red List Category 1, i.e. threatened with extinction

Great Bustards in Havelländisches Luch in Germany - Großtrappen in Deutschland
Great Bustards always fly upwind due to their body weight.

Population and Endangerment of Great Bustards in Germany

In 1940, there were about 4,100 great bustards in Germany. However, almost 60 years later, the population had collapsed catastrophically and several populations became extinct. With only 57 animals left, the great bustard was on the verge of extinction nationwide in 1996. Presently, only three sites in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt are known to be home to the Great Bustard. These include the Havelländisches Luch, the Belzig Landscape Meadows as well as the Fiener Bruch. Therefore, all three areas are designated as European bird sanctuaries.

The great bustard is one of the most endangered species in Germany.

The main threats to great bustards are:

As an inhabitant of the agricultural landscape, the great bustard was particularly affected by the intensification and mechanization of agriculture in the second half of the 20th century. The high density of tillage operations and the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides altered the habitat of the great bustard and numerous other ground-nesting birds. In addition, more and more meadows were turned over and converted into intensively fertilized grassland with several cutting dates per year. Breeding animals and their nests often fell victim to the machines. With the disappearance of flowering meadows, fallow areas and species-rich field sides, insects also became fewer. Yet these are the main food and source of protein for the chicks during their first two weeks of life. Great bustard habitats deteriorated to the point that no great bustard chicks fledged in the field between 1970 and early 1990.

Great bustards live in an open and easily visible landscape. But these areas are becoming less and less. Due to the construction of roads and housing developments, the bustards’ habitat is becoming smaller and more fragmented. Added to this is the loss of habitat due to overhead power lines and the construction of wind farms. Power lines and wind turbines also posed a direct source of danger to the mostly low-flying bustards and, along with predators, are the most common cause of death for bustards. Additionally, wind turbines devalue bustard areas due to their scaring effect on the animals.

In addition to habitat loss due to agriculture and fragmentation, growing predator populations have contributed to declining breeding success since the early 1990s. Even in bustard-friendly managed areas, no great bustard chicks were raised in the mid-1990s. Predators include mainly foxes, badgers, martens and corvids, as well as the neozoa raccoon, mink and raccoon dog.

Protection for the Great Bustards

A series of targeted conservation measures prevented the extinction of the great bustard in Germany at the last moment. The total population has grown again to around 300 bustards. A breeding and reintroduction program as well as the cooperation with local farmers and hunters were decisive for this success.

In 1973, eggs were first collected from great bustard nests exposed by agricultural work. Had the eggs been left there, they would have been lost. The eggs were artificially hatched and the chicks were released into the wild after successful raising. These were the beginnings of a rearing program that has been instrumental in the rise of the bustard population and is still successfully run by the Förderverein Großtrappenschutz e.V. today. Survival rates of hand-reared and released young bustards to the next spring have been between 60 and 70 percent since 2011.

The eggs taken are all from endangered clutches. These were either exposed by agricultural work or were very early nests with little protection from predators from the grass. Bustard hens react to this by producing a subsequent clutch, which is exposed to significantly less risk from predators. After the chicks hatch at the rearing station, they are cared for at the bird sanctuary until at least eight weeks of age. At the latest at the age of ten weeks, the young bustards are transferred to the release enclosure where they are cared for a further three months.

In the Havelländisches Luch, the bustard population is already able to survive on its own thanks to successful habitat enhancement and predator management. However, in the Fiener Bruch and the Belzig landscape meadows, not enough bustard chicks fledge naturally. Therefore, hand-rearing with subsequent release into the wild is currently still an indispensable measure in bustard conservation.

Further measures for the protection of the great bustards are aimed at the ecological upgrading of the breeding areas through extensification of agriculture. After all, it would make little sense to release the laboriously reared young birds into unsuitable habitats. Ultimately, only large-scale habitat restoration can guarantee the survival of the great bustards.

Negotiations with regional farmers were conducted in order to start a nature-compatible and bustard-friendly land management in the bustard area. The farmers receive compensation payments for the creation of fodder strips, the leaving of old grass strips, the renunciation of fertilizers and pesticides as well as a renunciation of use on partial areas. In addition, management dates for the meadows are coordinated in the interest of great bustard protection.

Farmers are also doing their part to protect the bustards: last winter, for example, snow was removed from farmland so that the bustards could feed. If no action had been taken here, the bustards might have migrated to get food. A dangerous undertaking for the animals, often without a happy ending.

The increase in the population of predators, especially foxes, was enormous. Hunting with traps and guns alone no longer helped. Therefore, predator-proof fenced areas were established in all three habitat areas. Inside the fenced enclosures, breeding success has been very successful with 2.2 young per brood. Outside the fencing, however, no or hardly any chicks have fledged so far.

Besides loss to predators, overhead power lines are the most common cause of bustard mortality. Therefore, the undergrounding of medium-voltage power lines and the marking of high-voltage lines made another significant contribution to great bustard conservation.


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Observing Great Bustards in the Havelländisches Luch

Which bird enthusiast can resist the courtship ritual of the male bustards? You can observe the great bustards particularly well from mid-March to mid-May in the morning and evening hours. The Förderverein Großtrappenschutz e.V. provides a visitor service and guided excursions in the Havelländisches Luch during this time.

Between October and March, groups of great bustards are particularly easy to observe in rapeseed fields. This is because the frost-resistant leaves provide a good food source even in winter.

The best observation opportunities can be found at the two observation towers between Buckow and Garlitz, about 60 kilometers west of Berlin. Buckow is also home to office of the Bird Sanctuary Buckow and the headquarters of the Großtrappenschutz e.V. association.
The observation towers are also easy to reach from Berlin by train and bicycle. The train RE4 leaves every 2 hours and takes about 50 minutes from the main station to Nennhausen station. From there it is another 7.5 kilometers to the towers.

For the benefit of the bustards many field paths are closed in the protected area and the opened paths should not be left. Keep quiet so as not to startle the animals and keep your four-legged companions on a leash.

In addition to the great bustards, many other bird species can be observed in the Havelländisches Luch nature reserve. These include storks, cranes, partridges and harriers. Moreover, many migrants and winter visitors can be observed during the bird migration season, such as the rough-legged buzzard.

Information board at the parking lot of the Bird Sanctuary Buckow.
Information board at the parking lot at the office of the Bird Sanctuary Buckow.
Bird watching tower near Buckow.
Bird watching tower near Buckow.
habitat of the great bustards
Walking in the habitat of the great bustards is also prohibited for visitors.

It's about more

The great bustard is one of many endangered species. It is representative of many other species in the agricultural landscape. Today, global biodiversity is more threatened than ever. The number of endangered species nearly doubled between 2007 and 2019. Of more than 72,000 known vertebrate species, one in eight is already threatened with extinction. This is according to the latest version of the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The main causes of species extinction are climate change, environmental pollution and habitat destruction.

Infographic: Number of Threatened Species is Rising | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Measures to protect the great bustard will ultimately benefit many other animal and plant species in the same habitat. What you can do for the protection of species right this very day? Support nature-friendly agriculture by buying sustainably produced food.

Here you will find further 10 easy Things you can do to save endangered Species.

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