birds,  museum

A bird in hand or two in the bush

Great Bustard, Horniman Museum, England. Photo by D Jørgensen
Great Bustard, Horniman Museum, England. Photo by D Jørgensen

At the Horniman Museum near London, a case with two birds stands near a staircase in the back on the natural history exhibit. Unlike most of the other displays that show visitors either related species (like a display of apes) or convergent evolution (like things with wing-like structures), this one puts the history of the species at fore. This relatively new display tells an extinction and reintroduction story:

The great bustard (Otis tarda) once lived in Salisbury Plain and in the breck district of East Anglia, but became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in 1832, mainly due to habitat fragmentation. Attempts have been made to reintroduce the species both in Britain and on the European continent.

As a historian of reintroduction, the exactness of the extinction caught my eye: in 1832 the great bustard became “extinct as a breeding bird”. Inspired by a post I read yesterday on John Smith and a mermaid sighting, which turned out to be a fabricated history, I decided to go looking for this date.

If you do an internet search for the great bustard and 1832, you will see that a plethora of newspaper articles reference the date, often saying something like the bird “became extinct in the UK that year” or  “the last one was killed in 1832”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website likewise claims “the last bird was shot in 1832”. Of course, that’s not the same thing as the claim made on the Horniman sign, which says the bird no longer bred after that year. That statement is sometimes picked up in newspaper articles, like one discussing the first chick hatched by reintroduced birds. In modern birding books like John Parslow’s Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland (1973), the last breeding date of 1832 is also given. Interestingly, the Great Bustard Group, which is leading the reintroduction efforts, simply states “Great Bustards were formerly very much part of British wildlife until the 1840s when they became extinct in Britain due to collectors and changes in agriculture.” But they are the exception to the rule.

Where did this 1832 extinction date come from?

A short communication in The Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology and Meteorology for 1833 reported:

A nest of the great bustard (Otis tarda L.) was discovered this season on an extensive warren, in the neighbourhood of Thetford: the female, I have much pleasure in stating, took her young off in safety; and on the same heath a male bird and two females have been seen together very recently. — J.D. Hoy. Stoke Nayland, Suffolk, Nov. 20, 1832.

Here was a 1832 sighting of a nest and chicks! This story of 1832 was repeated in William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds (vol. 2, 2nd edition, 1843), although he said he got it from a Rev. Richard Lubbock. A later version of the story in A History of the Birds of Europe included a post-script that another man who was with J. D. Hoy and saw the young bird ascertained “that the nest was situated in a field of rye, into which the old and young retired when disturbed”.

Yet, 1832 was by no means the last sighting of great bustards in the UK.  A very thorough article “The Great Bustard” in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country in September 1854 detailed all of the documents mentioning bustards by year through 1843 in England. The entry for 1834 stated:

But, notwithstanding this evidence and the story of the last of the Salisbury plain Bustards–a widowed female–coming into a farmer’s barton as if giving herself up in despair, the breed, though greatly reduced, was not entirely extinct in England in 1825, or even in 1833….In the summer of 1834, a nest of three eggs was hatched in an open corn-field about a mile from High House; and in December in that year, three Great Bustards were seen about a mile from it. (p.335)

This article noted that Yarrell’s A History of British Birds, 2nd edition, had reported a female great bustard shot in 1843 and concluded “this is the last instance known to us of the existence of this noble species in Great Britain” (p.336).

Later in 1853, Yarrell, who had written the definitive work on British birds, read a communication titled “On the Habits and Structure of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda of Linnæus)” for the Linnean Society of London. In it, he reproduced a letter from J. H. Gurney of Norwich who stated that

As far as I can learn, the last Bustard killed in Norfolk was a female, which was shot at Lexham near Swaffham, towards the end of the year 1838. The small flock, of which this bird was one, had for some years previously consisted of females only, the eggs of which were frequently picked up, having been dropped about at random in consequence of the absence of male birds, the latter having become extinct at an earlier date. (p158)

On top of that, Yarrell noted three of instances of the bird since 1845, when the 2nd edition of his A History of British Birds was published: a female seen in August 1849 on Salisbury Plain by G. R. Waterhouse of the British Museum; a female shot in January 1850 in Romney Marsh; and another bustard shot in December 1851 in Devonshire.

The Great Bustard illustrated in H.E Dresser, The History of the Birds of Europe, vol 7 (1871-1881)
The Great Bustard illustrated in H.E. Dresser, The History of the Birds of Europe, vol 7 (1871-1881)

H.E. Dresser’s A History of the Birds of Europe  included a report by Cecil Smith, which had been told to the Somersetshire Natural History Society on 6 February 1871 and then reported in Nature, that the bustard was even present in 1870 “when one or more small flocks visited out country, and examples were procured in Northumberland, Middlesex, Wiltshire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire.” Dresser even “had the satisfaction of examining in the flesh” a great bustard killed in Middlesex on 29 January 1871.

The 1832 extinction story, even as the last date of hatching, simply doesn’t hold up if you look at the reports near to the date. Yet 1832 is what gets reproduced over and over again. Just as I’ve noted before about searching for the last, extinction stories get reproduced and codified, especially when mobilised to support reintroduction projects. In other words, having a good story about the end, makes the new beginning more memorable.

For his book The Birds of Norfolk (vol. 2, 1866), Henry Stevenson had conducted exhaustive local research on oral histories about the bustard and extant stuffed specimens. He concluded that “the year 1838 is the last when examples known with certainty to have been killed”, but wisely cautioned:

The precise time at which the extinction of the Norfolk bustard took place, like that of the extinction of many other species, is not, perhaps, now to be determined with accuracy.

Perhaps more people should follow Stevenson’s reluctance to speak with certainty about the end of the bustard. 1832 was likely not the end, even though the end would come. A dead bird might have been in hand, but perhaps there were two more hiding in the bush.

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