Distribution and population numbers

International

The Great Bustard possibly possesses the widest range of any threatened species of bird, distributed as it is from close to the Atlantic seaboard in Iberia and Morocco across to the Pacific coast of China, a distance of about 10,000 km.

The global population currently totals approximately 44,000 to 51,000 individuals (Palacin & Alonso 2008). The majority of these - about 38,000 to 47,000 - live in Europe. The largest subpopulations are found in central Spain, southern Russia and the Great Hungarian Plain. At around 30,000 individuals more than half of the world's population is at home in Spain. Among the "MoU countries" (signatories of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of the Middle-European Population of the Great Bustard), Hungary has the largest Great Bustard population with approximately 1,555 individuals in the year 2012, followed by Ukraine and Austria.

Map of the world distribution of the Great Bustard
Map of the world distribution of the Great Bustard

Distribution of the Great Bustard open in Google Earth (requires Google Earth installation)

Table: Population estimates for the Great Bustard in Europe in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Data for 2004 were gathered at the international "Scientific Symposium on the Great Bustard" in Illmitz, Austria, in September 2004. Data for 2008 were gathered at the international "Second Meeting of the Great Bustard MoU" in Feodosia, Ukraine,in November 2008.
Country 2004 2008 2012
Albania ? 0 ?
Austria 107 - 140 205 - 216 213 - 253
Bulgaria 0 - 10 0 - 6 ?
Croatia 0 0 0
Czech Republic 1 - 6 0 0
Germany 85 110 123
Greece 0 0 0
Hungary 1300 1378 1555
Macedonia ? 0 ?
Moldova 0 0 0
Montenegro 0 0 0
Portugal 1435 1399 1893
Romania ? 0 - 8 9
Russia 8000 - 10.000 6000 - 12000 5000
Serbia 30 - 36 35 - 38 3 - 5
Slovakia 10 0 - 3 0 - 2
Spain 23300 27500 - 30000 29400 - 34400
Turkey 700 - 1200 762 - 1250 400 - 1000
U.K. 0 7 - 15 20
Ukraine 640 - 850 520 - 680 520 - 680
Total 35600 - 38.500 37935 - 47.122 39136 - 44940
Distribution of the Great Bustard in Europe and population numbers in 2008
Distribution of the Great Bustard in Europe and population numbers in 2008

The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) originates in steppe areas. Fossil finds show that bustards occurred in the "polar steppes" of central Europe in the wake of the last ice age. As forests took over in large areas of Europe, suitable habitat for the species shrank significantly. Then, following extensive medieval deforestation, the Great Bustard became a common sight in European agricultural areas, reaching its widest distribution in the 17th and 18th centuries. Around the year 1800, Great Bustards populated Europe's large-scale agricultural landscapes in abundant numbers, breeding from England and Scotland in the west to Denmark and southern Sweden in the north. In Russia, the northern range limit lay some 500 km further north than it does today.

As the medieval system of cultivating arable land in 3-year rotations came to an end, diversity of food resources for Great Bustards decreased. In modern times, especially from the middle of the 19th century on, intensification of agriculture and later the erection of overhead power lines (medium and high voltage) lead to populations in Europe suffering severe declines and many subpopulations becoming extinct. The first populations to die out were those at the range limits in the west (England 1845) and north (Sweden 1862), where in addition to everything else climatic conditions were unfavourable. England embarked on a large-scale reintroduction programme a few years ago.

West-Pannonian region

Location of the study area „West-Pannonian region” (black line; 45,000 km²) in East Austria (A; 8.649 km²), Hungary (H; 22.195 km²), Slovakia (SK, 10.176 km²) and the Czech Republic (CZ; 3.971 km²).
Location of the study area „West-Pannonian region” (black line; 45,000 km²) in East Austria (A; 8.649 km²), Hungary (H; 22.195 km²), Slovakia (SK, 10.176 km²) and the Czech Republic (CZ; 3.971 km²). Source: Raab et al. (2010).

Extensive research was carried out at the 7 main study areas Westliches Weinviertel (WW), Marchfeld (MF), Rauchenwarther Platte (RP), Heideboden (HB), Parndorfer Platte (PP), Mosonszolnok (MS) and Hanság (HA).

Distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard around 1970
Distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard around 1970 (1964-1975; black area in total approx. 2.895 km², of that approx. 1.419 km² in A, approx. 710 km² in H, approx. 696 km² in SK and approx. 69 km² in CZ); source: Raab et al. (2010)
Distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard around 1995
Distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard around 1995 (1990-1999; black area in total approx. 419 km², of that approx. 213 km² in A, approx. 142 km² in H, approx. 52 km² in SK and approx. 12 km² in CZ); source: Raab et al. (2010).
Distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard around 2005
Distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard around 2005 (2000-2009; black area in total approx. 515 km², of that approx. 336 km² in A, approx. 132 km² in H, approx. 32 km² in SK and approx. 15 km² in CZ); source: Raab et al. (2010).
Comparison of the distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard between 1970 (black area) and 2005 (grey area, see Figure further up); source: Raab et al. (2010).
Comparison of the distribution of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard between 1970 (black area) and 2005 (grey area, see Figure further up); source: Raab et al. (2010).

The West Pannonian population of the Great Bustard showed a marked decline in numbers from a total of at least 3,500 individuals in 1900 to about 130 in 1995. Factors implicated in this decline are habitat changes caused mainly by agricultural transformations and the development of human infrastructures (particularly high and medium voltage power lines), but also hunting pressure. As a result of intensive and cross-border protective measures the population recovered from the low in 1996 to a population of at least 505 individuals in winter 2014/2015.

Wintering numbers of the West Pannonian population of the Great Bustard between 1900 and 2015 (numbers for 1900 to 1990 estimated), data source: Raab et al. (2010) and own data.
Wintering numbers of the West Pannonian population of the Great Bustard between 1990 and 2015 (numbers for 1900 to 1990 estimated), data source: Raab et al. (2010) and own data.

Within the last years, the West Pannonian population of the Great Bustard has increased significantly. That means the number of females has increased from 80 in 1996 to 310 in 2015.Also the number of males has increased during the same period, from 50 individuals to around 160.

Numbers of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard (population size at breeding season as well as fledged juvenile Great Bustards that were still alive in September) between 1996 and 2015: Raab et al. (2010) and own data.
Numbers of the West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard (population size at breeding season as well as fledged juvenile Great Bustards that were still alive in September) between 1996 and 2015: Raab et al. (2010) and own data.

Austria

Austria's bustard population is located at the northwestern edge of the third largest European distribution "cluster" of Great Bustards in the Great Hungarian Plain. The Austrian population is centred around the Western Weinviertel, the Marchfeld and the Rauchenwarther Platte in Lower Austria, and the Heideboden, the Parndorfer Platte and the Hanság / Seewinkel in Burgenland.

The total Austrian population declined from 700-800 individuals in the middle of the 20th century (1942) to 150-170 in 1970-72, decreasing further to approximately 100 in 1978, and finally reaching about 60 individuals at the end of the century. Following a slight recovery in numbers and recolonization of "Austrian" breeding sites in the cross-border population from western Hungary, the population was back up to about 320 individuals in the breeding season of 2014.

Since 1995 numerous special Great Bustard protection fields have been created within the framework of ÖPUL (Austrian programme for an environmentally appropriate, extensive and natural habitat friendly agriculture). During the years 1995 to 2000, their extend was around 300 ha and has increased to around 5.000 ha since 2003. Within the last years, also the number of Great Bustards living in Austria has increased to approximately 320 individuals (breeding time 2014).

An overview of the trend of Great Bustard numbers
Size of the Austrian Great Bustard population

Overview of Great Bustard numbers (numbers of individuals during the breeding season) in Eastern Austria between 1940 and 2014 (blue column), and the total area of ÖPUL-Great bustard protection fields between 1996 and 2014 (red column); data: Raab et al. (2010) and own data.

In the period since 1990, populations in two Austrian areas increased markedly, in the Heideboden and the Western Weinviertel. In the Hanság, Parndorfer Platte and Rauchenwarther Platte areas the populations remained more or less stable at a low level over the same period. In the Marchfeld area the population decreased drastically from 25 to 6 individuals from 1990 to 2000, subsequently stabilising at a low level and most recently beginning to show a slight upward trend again. In the Vienna basin south of the river Danube small breeding populations persisted into the second half of the 20th century. Only individual breeding occurrences now remain on the Rauchenwarther Platte. Not counting this site, there were more than 100 bustards in the Vienna basin around 1940; numbers dropped to only 2 individuals in 1990 and the population has become extinct since.

Table: Development of Great Bustard numbers (individuals) in Austria by sites.
 

ca. 1940

ca. 1970

ca. 1980

1990

1996

2000

2003

2006

2010

2012

2014

Western Weinviertel

294-387

23-27

20-27

15-20

22

35

40

53

(59-)60

55(-56)

54(-56)

Marchfeld

55

47

25

12

6

8

5

9

5-7

5(-7)

Vienna Basin

> 100

15-25

2-3

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Rauchenwarther Platte

ca. 20

7-8

2

4

1

1

2

0

0

0

0

Heideboden (Austrian part)

300-400

ca. 20 ?

3-4 ?

0

1

14

34-67

76-93

130-155

117-145

190-264

Parndorfer Platte

20-30

12

6

6

8

9-10

8

24-26

13-19

12-21

Mosonszolnok (Austrian part)

?

?

?

0

0

0

0

0

1

 

Hansag (Austrian part)

40-50

ca. 40

16

14-16

10-14

16-17

24-27

20-22

22-25

14-16

Eastern Austria total

700-800

150-170

ca. 130

68-73

56-58

74-78

109-144

166-186

244-274

213-253

275-364

Source: Raab et al. (2010) and own data.

In December of 2002, around 200 Great Bustards were counted in Austria for the first time in a long period, because part of the Hungarian and Slovakian populations close to the border were staying in the attractive wintering grounds of Burgenland. In January and February of 2004 numbers even rose to 219 birds, 176 out of which were counted in northern Burgenland alone. At the same time a further 32 bustards stayed on the Hungarian side close to the border, making the total for the West-Pannonian population, i.e. the cross-border Austro-Hungarian-Slovak-Czech population 251 Great Bustards in winter 2003/04.

In February 2014 a total of 505 bustards were observed. Winter numbers of the West-Pannonian population therefore increased from 129 in 1995/96 to at least 505 in 2014/15. That many Great Bustards could not be observed in that region for 30 years! During the past winters nearly the whole West-Pannonian population of Great Bustard could be found in the attractive wintering grounds of Burgenland and Lower Austria. Long since a good deal more than 300 bustards could be found in Austria for the last few winters.

Population numbers of the West-Pannonian Great Bustard population in winter in the period 1995/96 to 2014/2015; source: Raab et al. (2010) an down data.
Population numbers of the West-Pannonian Great Bustard population in winter in the period 1995/96 to 2014/2015; source: Raab et al. (2010) an down data.

Detailed information on population development of Great Bustard in Austria as well as the whole West-Pannonian population can be found in the publication of Raab et. al (2010), which was published in March 2010 in “Egretta”, the scientific journal of BirdLife Austria. Information about implemented conservation projects can be found there as well.
Citation: Raab, R., Kollar, H. P., Winkler, H., Faragó, S., Spakovszky, P., Chavko, J., Maderič, B., Škorpíková, V., Patak, E., Wurm, H., Julius, E., Raab S. and Schütz, C. (2010): Die Bestandsentwicklung der westpannonischen Population der Großtrappe, Otis tarda Linnaeus 1758, von 1900 bis zum Winter 2008/2009. Egretta 51: 74-99.

Egretta im März 2010 (pdf, 1,2 MB)

Numerous informations and pictures you will find in the illustrated book „Die Großtrappe in Mitteleuropa. Erfolgreicher Schutz der westpannonischen Population“ from Raab, R., Kovacs, F. J., Julius, E., Raab, S., Schütz, C., Spakovszky, P. und Timar, J., which was produced in 2010 within the LIFE project. The number of copies is 1,500. The printing costs were paid from the project partner Austrian Power Grid AG.
Citation: Raab, R., Kovacs, F. J., Julius, E., Raab, S., Schütz, C., Spakovszky, P. und Timar, J. (2010): Die Großtrappe in Mitteleuropa. Erfolgreicher Schutz der westpannonischen Population. APG, Wien, 304 S.

Illustrated book “Die Großtrappe in Mitteleuropa. Erfolgreicher Schutz der westpannonischen Population"

Part 1: hardcover (1,2 MB)

Part 2: core (16,5 MB)