Breeding and Husbandry of the Buff

Breeding and Husbandry of the Buff-Crested Bustard Eupodotis ruficrista
Jocelyn Womack
Senior Bird Keeper/Dallas Zoo
Buff-crested bustards are a member of the Gruiformes order. Bustards share an
ancient relative with cranes, but have since evolved away from the rest of the members of
this order and are classified into their own suborder, Otitides (del Hoyo, et al, 1996)
There is some debate about what the genus and species classification of the buffcrested bustard should be. U.S. zoos generally consider this species of bustard to be
Eupodotis ruficrista, although recent importations indicate that these zoos may be
holding two separate subspecies. The red-crested bustard or red-crested korhaan,
Eupodotis ruficrista gindiana, is considered to be a possible subspecies of the buffcrested bustard, Eupodotis ruficrista ruficrista.. The Handbook of the Birds of the World
goes so far as to classify the buff-crested bustard as a separate species, Lophotis gindiana,
mainly because it is solitary, not gregarious, and has very different vocalizations (del
Hoyo, et al, 1996)
The photographs below illustrate the similarities and differences in appearance
that occur between the buff-crested bustard and the red-crested korhaan.
Male buff-crested bustard
Male red-crested bustard
Photo by Gerald and Buff Corsi
copyright California Academy of Sciences,
2 007
Female buff-crested bustard
female red-crested bustard
Copyright Vivian Droog, 2007
Buff-crested bustards are found in eastern African from Sudan and Somalia into
Tanzania and Kenya. They inhabit semi-arid to arid tropical bush land indicating an
ability to thrive in hot-dry environments.
The 2006 IUCN Red List lists their conservation status as “Least Concern,”
indicating that they are fairly common through out their entire range.
Buff-crested bustards are small in size, ranging from 675-900 grams. They lack a
hind toe for perching and so are fully terrestrial. In addition, they are cryptically colored
to help them blend into their environment. They also are sexually dimorphic as can be
seen in the photographs below. Male buff-crested bustards have more distinct coloration,
most notable the brown, unmottled head, the black stripe down the front of the neck and a
black chest and belly. Females are much plainer, by comparison.
Buff-crested bustards do well in small or large well-planted aviaries that give the
birds many places to hide. A particularly nervous individual may need a large space.
Buff-crested bustards fly up to avoid danger and can be seriously injured flying into the
ceiling of shorter caging.
They do well housed with a variety of small species of birds. The Dallas Zoo has
housed them with starlings, barbets, rollers, pigeons, and a variety of ground birds from
guinea fowl to waterfowl with no significant aggression issues noted.
Depending on the individual personalities of a group of birds, it may be possible
to keep one male and several females in an exhibit together as long as the females have
multiple nesting places to choose from. More than one male will not be compatible. This
species can also be successfully housed alone. Housing breeding pairs does present some
challenges that will be discussed later.
Buff-crested bustards do well in hot, dry climates and appear to be fairly tolerant
of colder temperatures. The Dallas Zoo allows its birds to stay outside down to a wind
chill of upper 20’s Fahrenheit. However, Dallas rarely stays below freezing for more
than a few hours. It is recommended, in areas where temperatures stay below freezing
for long periods of time, that these birds be brought into a heated area, as frost bite has
occurred in this species.
It is also very import that in areas of high rainfall that these birds have a place to
dry off. Poor feather condition and other health issues can result from birds that stay
continually wet.
Buff-crested bustards are dust bathers, so having areas of dry mulch, sand or soil
are very important for their overall health.
Little is known about buff-crested bustard diets in the wild. Bustards, as a group,
are considered to be omnivorous, consuming a large amount of plant and insect material.
In addition, they are opportunistically carnivorous, consuming small vertebrates such as
lizards, snakes and rodents. The diet at the Dallas Zoo was formulated based on this idea.
Below is the Dallas Zoo diet for one individual bird.
½ oz. fuzzy mice
1T. chopped fruit
1 T. mixed vegetables (corn, peas, lima beans, green beans)
¼ c. Mazuri softbill pellets, soaked
1 T. Mazuri gambird maintenance pellets
1 tsp. scratch grains
10 fresh frozen crickets
10 small mealworms
5 waxworms
10 live crickets or 6 superworms fed as forage enrichment
The Dallas Zoo has also observed these birds browsing on leaves, particularly a
species of privet with very small leaves. Providing these birds with different browse
items, from leaves to edible flowers, may be beneficial as well as enriching.
Breeding displays are exhibited by the male, the female is only a spectator. Three
different types of displays will be discussed here. The first is an aerial display. “The
male flies up vertically for about 20-30 meters then semi-somersaults backwards, feet up,
head back, crest and breast puffed out, then rocks back forward and drops in a fluffed up
ball to the ground” (del Hoyo, et al, pg. 256). It has been suggested that it may be
necessary to house this species in a very large aviary with a high ceiling to allow it to
perform this display. This doesn’t appear to be necessary for successful breeding, as the
Dallas Zoo has housed their breeding pairs in 10’ X 8’ X 8’ outside caging since 1988
and successfully bred multiple pairs.
The second display is illustrated Sketch 1 below:
Sketch 1
The male adopts this posture while facing the female or strutting around near her,
while uttering a soft low-pitched clicking sound. The purpose of this display is unknown,
but is likely a pre-copulatory display.
The third display is illustrated in Sketch 2 below:
Sketch 2
The male adopts this posture and begins his vocalizations with the low-pitched
clicking sound from above. He then moves into low pitched repetitive screeches that
work their way to high pitched screeches. The bird then repeats this vocalization several
times. Again, the purpose of this display is unknown, but is likely used to advertise
territory and attract a female.
Buff-crested bustards breed well in captivity and it may be possible to have a pair
of breeding birds that can be housed together year-round. However, serious aggression
problems can occur during the breeding season. Males of this species have been
observed harassing females to the point of injury during their attempts to copulate with an
unreceptive female. Observed copulations appear violent. The male will chase the
female until she submits by lying down on the ground. The male then comes up behind
her, pecking her aggressively around the head and back, until copulation takes place.
The Dallas Zoo had two females who were injured by overly aggressive males. One
female was severely scalped with severe peck marks to the head and back, the other had
severe peck marks which got fly-strike. Males can also harass females who are sitting on
eggs until they desert their nests.
The Dallas Zoo dealt with this problem by separating our male and female into
two side-by-side enclosures. The birds have visual contact with each other. When the
female lays her first egg of the season, we pull it. Our female recycles about every 10
days. Five days after pulling the egg, we begin allowing the birds access to each other.
The male can enter the female’s pen or the female can enter the male’s pen. Copulations
usually occur within the first five minutes the birds are together but can take longer. An
unreceptive female will continue to run from the male, even flying up to get away. We
allow the male to pursue the female for several minutes to see if she will submit to
copulation, and separate them when it apparent she will not. The key here is only
allowing the pair together for breeding when we can observe their activities. We have
eliminated injuries to the female using this method and produced many fertile eggs.
It is recommended that males be kept separate from the female during egg-laying
and chick rearing. Males don’t participate in these activities and separating the pair can
help eliminate potential aggression problems.
A nesting female will search out a nest site on her own. She lays her single egg
either directly on the ground, or in a shallow scrape in the soil. The egg is cryptically
colored to help protect if from predation. Incubation takes 20-23 days. At the Dallas
Zoo our females have laid eggs in every month of the year but January, but April is the
most common.
Females also raise chicks on their own. Chicks are cryptically colored and
precocial at hatch, but depend on the dam for their entire diet for the first few days of life.
After a few days chicks begin picking up food on their own, but still rely on the dam for
the majority of their food intake. The dam feeds the chick by picking up a food item and
feeding it directly to the chick. Chicks are adult size in about 4-5 weeks.
Diet for dam and chick at the Dallas Zoo is a modification of our adult
maintenance diet. See below for the parent-rearing protocol and diet used at the Dallas
Buff-crested Bustard
Parent-rearing Protocol
Twenty four hours after hatch, the chick will be picked up for a well-baby check,
umbilical swabbing and weight. The mother’s diet will be switched from fuzzies to
pinkies on a weight basis, all other items will be finely chopped for the first week. The
entire diet will then be divided into 3 feedings per day with the final feeding left until
dark. Sprinkle with breeder vitamins*.
The mother’s diet consists of ¼ c. soaked softbill pellets, 1 T chopped fruit, 14 g of
fuzzies, 10 crickets, 10 mealworms, 5 waxworms, 1 T mixed vegetables, 1 T. Exotic
Gamebird Maintenance, 1 tsp. scratch grains and either 10 live crickets or 6 giant
mealworms as insect forage. The live crickets will be discontinued for the first week, and
the giant mealworms will discontinued for the first three weeks.
Additional amounts and items will be added for the chick per the chart below. Prepare
crickets in the adult diet as instructed in the chart.
1 thru
8 thru
15 thru
21 thru
29 thru
chopped pinkie, cricket bodies, mealworms, waxworms
fuzzies, crickets, mealworms, waxworms, giant
fuzzies, crickets, mealworms, waxworms, giant mealworms,
chopped fruit,
softbill pellets, mixed veggies, layena, scratch
Weights for the chick will be 24 hours after hatch and then every other day for the first
week. After that they will continue every four days.
At Day 61, the chick should be fully feathered and nearly adult sized. At that time it can
be switched to adult buff-crested bustard diet.
*breeder vitamin mix – 1 part Vionate to 1 part calcium carbonate
Some developmental problems can occur with growing chicks. Splayed legs and
slipped tendons, though rare, can occur, but are easily preventable if chicks are kept on an
appropriate substrate. Angel wing is more common, but easily correctable if caught
The Dallas Zoo has also seen aggression directed from the chick towards the dam.
In one particular female, every chick she produced over a ten year period of time was
observed exhibiting aggression towards its mother. It occurred as early as 38 days of age
and as late as 83 days of age, but was most commonly seen around 45 days of age. The
chick would harass the dam to the point that the two had to be separated. It is unknown
why this occurs, but seems to be related to self-sufficiency of the growing chick. It also
may be an anomaly of this individual female.
Chick carrying was first documented in this species by the Dallas Zoo in 1991.
Several different species of birds across different taxa, including several other bustard
species are known to exhibit this behavior. The Dallas Zoo observed it in the early days
of a chick’s development. If a female was startled while brooding the chick, she would
rise off the ground, holding it under her wing. She could stand this way for several
seconds to minutes, and could even walk with the chick under her wing. She was
observed dropping the chick into a pile of grass as she passed. Dallas Zoo staff surmised
that a potential predator might not notice the chick being dropped and it could escape
being predated by staying hidden in the grass.
The photo below, taken by Celia Falzone, shows a female carrying her young
chick. The chick’s legs can be observed dangling below the wing of this female.
Close up view of legs dangling below dam’s wing;
Photograph by Celia Falzone
Hand-rearing of this species is relatively easy, requiring only a brooder, a pair of
forceps and syringe for water feedings. Imprinting can occur and can detrimentally affect
the future breeding of an individual. Hand-reared females will often not mate with
male’s of their pairings, and hand-reared males can be more aggressive then their parentreared counter parts. Hand-reared males have been known to kill females they were
paired with. Imprinting can be reduced using isolation rearing techniques or adding a
mirror to the brooder.
Below is the hand-rearing protocol used at the Dallas Zoo.
Buff-crested Bustard
Hand-rearing protocol
A well-baby exam will be done 24 hours after hatch. Keepers will swab the umbilical
area with betadine for the first three days after hatch. Barring any medical problems, the
chick will receive its first feeding after the yolk has resorbed (24 to 36 hours after hatch.)
The chick is expected to lose 10% of its body weight per day for the first 2 days. After
that, the chick will be expected to gain between 8% and 15% per day. The chick will be
weighed first thing every morning in order to prepare the proper amount of food.
For the first 2 weeks all items will be chopped into small pieces and as the chick grows,
the size of the pieces will increase in proportion to the chick. By the end of the first
month, the chick should be receiving diet items of the same size as that offered to the
adults. All food items will be offered to the chick via tweezers. A scant 1/3 tsp of the
breeder vitamin mix* will be sprinkled over the entire amount of food offered for the day
and then the amounts divided according to the schedule below. A small dish of pebbles
in it will be left in the brooder when the chick reaches 10 days of age. Until then, the
chick will be offered food items dipped in water and water offered via eye dropper or 1
ml syringe at every feeding. These chicks are precocial but do not feed on their own until
at least day 4 and sometimes not until day 13. Keepers will offer 5 feeding per day (7:15
a.m., 10:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m., 4:15 p.m., and 7:15 p.m.) for the first week, then 4 feedings
per day (7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.) for the next week, and stabilize
at 3 feedings per day (7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 3:30 p.m.) for the following 4 weeks.
The chick should be at an adult diet and schedule by six weeks of age.
Chopped fruit, pinkie, cricket body
Mazuri softbill pellets, mixed veggies
mealworms, waxworms
Chopped fruit, pinkie, crickets, softbill
pellets, mixed veggies, mealworms,
Chopped fruit, fuzzies, crickets, softbill
pellets, mixed veggies, mealworms,
Purina exotic gamebird
Chopped fruit, fuzzies, crickets, softbill
pellets, mixed veggies, mealworms,
scratch grains, giant mealworms
Chopped fruit, fuzzies, crickets, softbill
pellets, mixed veggies, mealworms,
Purina exotic gamebird
scratch grains, giant mealworms
*Breeder vitamin mix – 1 part Vionate to 1 part calcium carbonate
The initial brooder temperature will be 96º F and will be gradually lowered to the mid
80’s by the end of the second week. A feather duster surrogate mother will be hung from
the top of the brooder at all times. As weather and the chick’s health permits, the chick
will be given access to an outside yard as much as possible and then moved to an outside
pen by the third or fourth week.
All food dishes, utensils, and brooder will be disinfected using Nolvasan daily. The
brooder and hand-rearing area will be disinfected after the first morning feeding and all
dishes and utensils after every use using a Nolvasan soak. All staff will use gloves to
feed and handle the chick until the veterinary staff deems it safe not to.
Thanks to:
Cathy Burkey – Dallas Zoo Staff Photographer
David Roberts – Dallas Zoo Graphics Supervisor (line drawings)
Jeanette Boylan and Nancy Scott for technical assistance
Birdlife International 2004. Eupodotis ruficrista. In: IUCN 2007. 2007 IUCN Red List
of Threatened Species. Downloaded March 18, 2008
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds (1996). Handbook of the Birds of the World.
Vol. 3. Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona
Falzone, Celia K., First Observations of Chick Carrying Behavior by the Buff-crested
Bustard. March 1992. Wilson Bulletin. Vol 104, #1. pgs 190-192
Standardized Animal Care Guidelines for Small Bustards, American Zoo and Aquarium
Association. Draft, Aug, 2007. (In review.)
Corsi, Gerald and Buff, Red-crested bustard male, Copyright 2007 California Academy
of Sciences
Droog, Vivian. Red-crested bustard female. Copyright 2007 Vivian Droog