ABU DHABI // After spending life in captivity, the houbara bustard hesitated for a full 15 seconds in the face of freedom. Finally, after the rare bird was released by Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the Ruler's representative in Al Gharbia, it began to move. A walk turned to a run and finally flight, with the bird making a half-circle in the sky before disappearing over the horizon.
It was among 70 released into the wild yesterday, nine months after they were born in captivity at the National Avian Research Centre of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation. Birds that are released before they turn one year old have been shown to adapt better to desert life. Another 250 are set to be released by the end of this month in Abu Dhabi, with 30 more scheduled to be let go in Dubai next month. The birds are hunted as part of falconry, which is "part of our traditions, adopted by our ancestors and we try to keep it," Sheikh Hamdan said.
Before their release, done at a time when food is believed to be the most abundant, they are kept for two or three weeks inside a large net house to prepare them for "the wild voices" instead of humans', Sheikh Hamdan said. He called the release programme an important part of Abu Dhabi strategy to protect the birds. The nation's desert habitat lies on the birds' migration routes and has been a "historic stopover" for them, Sheikh Hamdan said.
The first, experimental releases began in 2004 with five birds and increased to 201 last year. By the end of February, the programme will have bred and released 800 houbaras in 13 locations throughout Dubai and Abu Dhabi. To protect houbara bustards worldwide and to increase the bird's population in their natural habitats, Abu Dhabi plans to breed 50,000 houbara bustards for release in Asia and North Africa.
In the months after they are born, the houbara are reared and prepared for the harsh conditions of their future desert environment, kept in large aviaries to develop their flying skills and fed with only natural food, such as alfalfa, meal worms, crickets and mice. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org