Declining numbers due to hunting, poaching, and habitat losses have led to the Houbara bustard being classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. This uniquely majestic desert beauty needed captive breeding and reintroduction programs to help sustain its numbers in the wild. The International Fund for Ecological Research (IFER) under the patronage of MME Qatar is committed to interventions in this regard. Houbara captive breeding program at Errachidia Wildlife Breeding Center (EWBC) Errachidia, under the auspices of IFER, is one such generous effort towards this noble cause.

 

Captive breeding is adopted to ensure the survival of a species or to supplement or re-establish its wild populations. This is attempted on species that are classified vulnerable due to their dwindling numbers in nature owing to multifarious factors. Such programs envisage to produce more numbers of the target species and reintroduce some to re-populate their tracts. However, it is important to maintain genetic diversity in such ventures. Beyond doubts, the founder flock has a major role in any such captive breeding programs……more…

 

In captivity, the founder flock production varies from 0 to 30 eggs per female per season.

An acceptable minimum baseline for Houbara captive breeding production would be 5 surviving chicks per captive female per season.

Each individual in the founder flock should have its genetic profile established so that scientifically planned breeding is carried out with a view to optimizing production maintaining genetic diversity.

 

Planned inseminations avoid inbreeding.

 

Parentage identification using molecular markers in relevant cases.

BREEDIND OF HOUBARA BUSTARD

BREEDING OF HOUBARA BUSTARD

Vision

We value the environment and consider it our rightful duty to ensure its protection for the present and future generations. At the same time, we do cherish our cultural heritage and take pride in it. This is why the vision of IFER is to conserve the endangered species in the environment considering the heritage of Qatar. This way we aim to preserve a sustainable Arabian falconry hand in hand with nature conservation.


Many areas which are natural tract to some wild species that are classified “Vulnerable” have already been identified and adopted by IFER as protected areas. By carefully designed scientific methods, IFER ventures to raise the population size of such endangered species in these reserves. The interventions by IFER are in tune with the planned strategies aimed at increasing the numbers of the individuals of the wild species of interest. Thus we maintain our mission of increasing the population size of the endangered species in such reserves by the focused efforts and earnest activities.


The objective remains to manage the conservation activities of endangered species and their subsequent reintroduction into natural tracts so as to maintain the balance in nature.

Mission

Plans are put into action in scientifically producing adequate numbers of endangered species like the Houbara Bustard and the Saker Falcon. This is carried out in our captive breeding centres. The annual production of the target species from these centers is used to enhance the size of wild populations by the release as well as replenishing the breeder stock apart from supporting responsible and sustainable hunting.

 

The Errachidia Wild Life Breeding Center in Morocco is one captive breeding facility that rears the Houbara Bustard. The breeder flock of this desert beauty is captive-bred here under expert supervision. The planned breeding resorts to techniques of artificial insemination and incubation of eggs. The annual production is reared carefully under special protocols of management. The EWBC functions with the aim of producing enough Houbara chicks every year so as to responsibly restock the wild population by releasing them back into their natural tracts.

 

The upcoming center at Guelmime in Morocco also envisages undertaking captive breeding of Houbara.

 

The new facility in Altai, China has initiated the captive breeding efforts for the Saker Falcons.

How it is done!!

 Breeding, Feeding & Rearing

Houbara bustards are seasonal breeders. The males exhibit breeding behavior such as display and courtship in captivity during the breeding season.

 

The breeders are housed in individual outdoor cages.

 

While maintaining a wild bird under captivity, the cages where they are housed need to be carefully designed.

 

The physical welfare of the Houbara is ensured by the right cage size and right materials used in their making.  This prevents the bird from physical injuries while it provides sufficient shade from the summer sun. The cage layout gives the birds more comfort when it maximizes their visual contact with like birds. Enough space offered inside allows the bird to retreat to comfortable distances inside the cage, especially during times of human intervention. Smaller cages tend to make them feel more stressed and agitated often, compromising on their mental welfare. The cages need to permit routine cleaning and disinfection activities without stressing the bird. The cage design should also help technicians apply regular breeding techniques like semen collection and inseminations with ease and efficiency causing the least stress to the birds.

 

The breeders are selected and accommodated in their respective cages two months before the start of egg lay.

 

In captivity, Artificial insemination is used to optimize breeding efficiency in Houbara.

 

It is a sophisticated and effective management system employed in captive breeding of Houbara where semen doses are inseminated into the receptive female breeders. The success of artificial insemination depends on the development of precise protocols, technical expertise, and proper equipment. It enables the use of a higher proportion of genetically superior males in each generation. The artificial insemination technique allows greater control over the breeding and also circumvents the peculiarities of the mating behavior of Houbara. For this, semen is collected from the males and used for inseminating females. Semen collection in Houbara is done by using Dummies

 

Breeder females are inseminated with semen collections from male breeders.

 

In the Houbara bustard, the use of dummies (wooden mounts decorated with feathers to simulate a female bird) is effective to collect semen. It is absolutely essential to maintain a calm environment during the training and collection sessions. The semen collector approaches the designated displaying male silently and stimulates the male using the dummy. The male then approaches pecks at the dummy and mounts. The ejaculate is collected in Petri dishes and then aspirated into vials with diluent. The semen collections are presented for evaluation immediately thereafter.

 

Semen collections are evaluated….. For quality and quantity – Colour, Volume, Motility, Concentration, and Viability.

 

The sperm concentration required to achieve optimum fertility depends on various factors….such as the age and genetic potential of the breeder, sperm viability, time lag between collection and insemination, and skill of the inseminator, to name a few.

 

For regular inseminations, semen is constituted into the right doses…. A dose of 10 million sperms at least and a minimum insemination volume of 0.05 ml (50µl) is recommended.

 

A Scientific breeding plan avoids inbreeding. Genetically distanced individuals are crossed under a careful breeding plan. The list of females to be inseminated is prepared a day in advance and inseminations are performed immediately after semen collection and analysis. The ideal insemination time is 3-6 days before egg-lay or 4-5 days after the last egg.

Feeding:

Wild Houbara are omnivorous. In captivity, the diet provided must be nutritionally apt since deficiencies can reflect in health, semen quality, egg quality, fertility, embryo mortality, or chick quality.

 

In nature, the availability of food has a major say in successful production. In captive breeding, increasing protein in feed prior to the onset of the breeding season is practiced. The onsets of rain, its frequency, and duration have a direct effect on the number of eggs produced. Normally, clutch size ranges from 1 to 4.Seasonal light pattern or changes in photoperiod is another trigger that determines the onset and duration of the breeding season.


Extruded formulated diet is fed to captive birds.


Pelleted feed containing 18% crude protein is fed to males ad libitum. Female breeders are provided with a feed of varying protein content based on their breeding status and time of the season. Vitamins and minerals are also supplemented. Mealworms and alfalfa are provided on alternate days in small quantities. Multivitamins and minerals are supplemented through drinking water.

Eggs are collected from the cages using gloved hands and are transported in clean egg trays. Lightly soiled eggs are cleaned with lab tissue. Egg disinfection is done using UV light. Eggs are graded considering size, shape, and shell characters.

Houbara generally lay early in the morning and the eggs get collected soon after. This helps to reduce the possibility of damages and contamination of the eggs by nest or fecal material. This also cuts off chances of the mother initiating brooding. Eggs are collected by gloved hands into clean egg collection trays. Soiled eggs go into separate trays.

Dirty eggs are not wet washed but gently cleaned with steel wool. Severely contaminated ones are discarded, or set in a separate incubator. Ultra Violet (UV ) egg sanitizing unit is used on clean and only lightly soiled eggs. Since the eggshell plays many roles in the incubation cycle, a clean intact shell is ensured. Bad eggs are incubated separately.

Good Eggs Are Artificially Incubated.

Incubation is a crucial step in captive breeding. Performance during the incubation process depends on the quality of both human and mechanical input. Incubation can be a big challenge in wild birds such as Houbara. The number of variables to control during incubation is only part of the problem because each egg can be different from the other. This is why incubation warrants special care.


Domesticated species have over generations and large numbers, been artificially adapted through selection to successfully hatch in conventional incubators. Houbara has not been subjected to this selection and so requires a much more considered incubation approach and incubation conditions. The environment in the room needs to be controllable to fine tolerances. Houbara eggs benefit from an incubation room that has been constructed considering and incorporating exacting climate control and equipment.

Eggs are candled at 9-10 days of incubation. Heart rate may also be monitored at this stage to assess the status of the developing embryo. Clear eggs move out of incubator post candling. The eggs are transferred to the Hatcher unit on the 21st day.

Hatched-out chick proceeds to the rearing sections.
Under captivity, to perform well as a breeder, a bird needs to get accustomed to the conditions of captivity and close human contact right from the chick stage to a breeding adult. Hand rearing and imprinting of the Houbara male allows semen to be collected by voluntary ejaculation leading to minimal stress during collection and increasing the viability of the sample. Hand rearing and daily contact create a bird that accepts being handled for insemination with minimal stress. Stress is a factor that would otherwise reduce egg production.


Hatched-out chicks are given ring numbers for identification and moved to the specialized facility –“Chick room”.


The Chick Room is an indoor facility consisting of specialized nurseries. The facility has chick boxes with brooder lamps, a ventilation system that handles air circulation, and above all, specially trained hands.


The chicks will be reared in indoor nurseries for the first few days of their life.


In the nursery, an ambient temperature of 25oC is maintained and artificial lighting is provided. Brooding temperatures are maintained inside chick boxes.


Chicks are fed with mealworms, crickets, vegetables, and greens in addition to pellets. Vitamin and mineral supplements are also given.


The chicks move from the intensive system of rearing to the semi-intensive system of rearing as their age advance. They gradually proceed through the juvenile stage to adulthood in the course of time, after being reared in different sections.


The chicks that are to be released back into the wild are reared separately under a separate protocol that involves minimal human contact. This prevents human imprinting on birds. These birds are grown in a separate facility that is custom-built for the purpose. This system of rearing equips them better for life that awaits in the wild. The special rearing makes them better prospects for release.


Here the birds are reared in groups in special enclosures where they get to see only the natural habitat they are going to go into. There is no human imprinting on them. They will have the choice of staying under brooder lamps or stay away from them at their will. The enclosures also offer enough room to let them spread their wings a bit.

Disease Control

Disease problems are minimized by avoiding stressful environmental conditions which weaken the bird’s natural resistance to infection, observing strict biosecurity measures, proper sanitation, and maintaining a constant vigil for signs of lack of thrift or discomfort in the chicks as well as adults.


Proper measures of hygiene and biosecurity are vital to ensure the upkeep of healthy breeding stock. Prophylaxis and medical management of diseases are key factors in maintaining flock health. Prophylactic measures include routine deworming and vaccinations. The flock is also screened for specific diseases. Oral, as well as parenteral administration of drugs, are reported on the basis of the merit of the case. Mass medications and supplementations through drinking water are done. Diseased birds are individually cared for and medicated appropriately. Surgical interventions were indicated. Each death is probed into and lab investigations were undertaken where necessary.