University of Bath scientists get to the bottom of Great Bustard diet
Scientists at University of Bath have given themselves the task of finding out more about the region’s newest species – by looking very closely at its poo.
The Bath researchers were asked to help a project which is working to establish a new population of the world’s heaviest flying bird, the Great Bustard, in Wiltshire.
And while the textbooks can tell the conservationists what the huge birds are supposed to eat, the only way of knowing for sure what Wiltshire’s Great Bustards are eating is by collecting their droppings, and then analysing them under a microscope.
The university says this will help understand their diet and nutrition and in turn boost their chances of survival.
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The Great Bustard was hunted to extinction in the 1830s, with the last remaining population found on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
The Great Bustard Reintroduction Project has worked for the last ten years to bring eggs and now chicks from the Russian steppes, where they still thrive, onto the Plain.
The project has proved challenging – volunteers had to disguise themselves as parent birds to try to teach the chicks that things like foxes were dangerous – but slowly a self-sustaining population is gradually establishing itself, with birds spreading out as far as Somerset and Dorset.
Now, Scott Gooch and Dr Kate Ashbrook, from the University of Bath’s project monitoring team, have been sifting through droppings to discover how the birds are doing in the West, rather than in Russia.
“Relatively little is known about the diets of Great Bustards living in the UK,” said Scott.
“Watching bustards in the wild can give you information on where they prefer to feed and how much of their time they devote to feeding, but by examining their droppings we can discover the quantities of insects and plants in their diet and how this changes across the year.
“The success of this reintroduction project depends on whether there is enough food to support great bustards through the autumn and winter. We believe there is, but it is important to monitor their diet,” she added.