The houbara is the characteristic bustard of the semi-desert tracts of North-west India; it is of medium size for a bustard, about two and a half feet long, and has plumage so beautifully assimilated to the sandy soil that it is hard to see at all on the ground, at any rate when crouched flat, which it habitually does when alarmed. On the wing its black-and-white quills show it up conspicuously, and in the hand its long fringe-like black-and-white ruff and the delicate grey on the breast, and the bars of the same tint on the tail, make it conspicuously different from our other bustards. The hen only differs from the cock in being smaller and not quite so fully " furnished " in the matter of head and neck plumage, but the sex difference is only comparative, not absolute as in our other bustards. Cocks weigh about four and hens about three pounds.
This bustard does not breed within Indian limits as far as is known, though it is suspected of doing so in Sind; but it is a well-known winter visitor, sometimes arriving as early as the end of August, but usually at least a month later. After April the birds have generally all departed for their breeding haunts— Persia and the Gulf, Baluchistan and Afghanistan. Outside Sind, Rajputana and the Punjab, houbara are mere stragglers; Hume shot one such in the Meerut district.
In the Western Indian dry plain country the houbara may be found either in the more or less thick but low and scrubby natural cover, or among the cereal crops, so long as these are low. It runs well, and often tries to escape in this way, but towards the time of its departure it appears to feel the heat so much as to be disinclined even to run, let alone fly. When it does rise, its flight is heavy and not long-continued, but it can display considerable wing power when attacked by a hawk. Ridiculously exaggerated as are many of the accounts of "protective colouring," there are some cases in which it really does seem to be a very important asset to the creature possessing it; for not only is it generally agreed that a squatting houbara cannot be picked out by human eyes, but even a falcon flown at one has been seen to settle and walk about in utter bewilderment, looking for the prey that had alighted and adopted the plan of literally " lying low."
Often also the houbara avoids the falcon when dropping into cover, and when hard pressed ejects his excrement, which, as in all bustards, is copious, fluid, and very offensive. He is credited with doing this on purpose, when, on trying to escape by "ringing up " like a heron, he finds the hawk just under him ; whether or not intentional, however, the action effectually puts the assailant out of the running, for the filthy discharge so glues its feathers together that it cannot fly well till cleansed, and may drop on the spot. But the falcon chiefly acts as the houbara's foe under the management of man; eagles, which strike at birds on the ground rather than on the wing, are probably the enemies against which the sandy plumage is a disguise.
In thick cover, houbara can be walked up by a line of guns and beaters ; where they are to be found in the open, a good way to approach them is to ride round them in diminishing circles on a camel, being ready for them to get up suddenly after they have disappeared by squatting as the approach becomes closer. You can see them all right when standing, in spite of the supposed "counter-shading" effect of the white under-surface of the body. Houbara are usually in parties, sometimes as many as twenty together ; they feed chiefly on vegetable food, ber fruits, grewia berries, lemon-grass shoots, and young wheat; now and then beetles and snails are taken, however. They appear to have no sort of call, but the male has a very striking nuptial display; he turns his tail forward, drops his wings, draws his head back and puffs out his neck till the bristling ruff produces a most extraordinary effect. The hen lays, in the usual bustard fashion, on the ground, two or three eggs, elliptical, about two and a half inches long, and stone colour to olive-brown in tint, with evenly distributed blotches and spots of dark brown and pale purple; some specimens have a green ground. This species of bustard finds its western limit in Mesopotamia as a rule, but it straggles west as well as east, especially to South-eastern Europe. It is found in the highlands of West China, and resides in Afghanistan and Baluchistan all the year round. It goes down in British bird books as Macqueen's bustard, one of our rarities. Somewhere or other it must meet the North African houbara (Houbara undulata), which ranges into Armenia, and differs from our bird by having no black tips to the crest feathers, the long breast-plumes white instead of grey, and much coarser black pencilling on the sandy back, this pencilling, common to bustards generally, being particularly delicate in the Eastern houbara. The name Houbara is a native one as well as Tiloor, which in Sind becomes Taloor.