The Bustards somewhat resemble the Gallinaceous Birds in external structure, but they have a much longer leg and neck. The tarsus and a portion of the tibia are quite bare of feathers, and the hind toe is entirely wanting. The front toes are very short.
The Bustards frequent large open plains where they can have a good view all round. They are extremely shy and difficult to approach. A few species are polygamous, and others pair together for the nesting season. Some species lay only one or two eggs ; others four. They lay their eggs in a hollow on the ground. The young are able to run soon after they are hatched.
The male Bustards have various ornamental tufts and plumes, and in some species the females also assume them. The males of some have a partial or complete spring moult, and in this case their summer plumage is different to that of the winter. No two species of Bustards agree in general structure or in the character of their ornamental tufts and plumes, and Dr. Bowdler Sharpe in his catalogue of these birds has very rightly placed each of the Indian Bustards in a separate genus.
The males of two species of Bustards have a large gular pouch, the use of which is not known, but it appears to be a sexual ornament, and to be inflated at will at the breeding season, and possibly at other times. The male of the Great Bustard, when courting, not only inflates this pouch, but deflects the feathers of the wings and tail in such a wonderful manner that it must be seen to be realised. A case of Bustards in the British Museum shows this wonderful performance to perfection.
As the Bustards differ so much from each other in general structure and ornamentation, I shall now give briefly the characters of each Indian species, first premising that the Bustards and the Floricans differ in the length of their legs. In the Bustards, the tarsus is shorter, being less than one-third the length of the wing, whereas in the Floricans the tarsus is longer, being nearly half the length of the wing.
The Great Bustard.— No seasonal change of plumage in either sex; male with a gular pouch, a short crest, and a bunch of bristle-like feathers or whiskers on each side of the throat; female with¬out a gular pouch and whiskers, but with a short crest; male very much larger than female; sexes not very dissimilar in plumage.
The Great Indian Bustard.— No seasonal change of plumage in either sex ; male with a gular pouch, a short crest, and the feathers at the base of the neck much lengthened and very soft in texture ; female without a pouch, with a shorter crest, and the feathers at base of neck less developed ; male very much larger than female; sexes closely alike in plumage.
The Indian Houbara-Bustard.— No seasonal change of plumage in either sex; both sexes with a long crest, and a ruff down the sides of the neck and across the breast; male much larger than female; sexes quite alike in plumage.
The Little Bustard.— Seasonal change of plumage in male only; male in summer plumage with lengthened feathers on the hindneck; both sexes with an extremely short crest at all seasons ; female larger than male ; sexes very dissimilar in plumage in summer ; approximately similar in winter; the fourth quill of wing in the male truncated.
The Bengal Florican. — Seasonal change of plumage in male only ; male in summer with a full crest and the feathers of the throat, foreneck and breast lengthened ; those on the breast forming a large tuft; male in winter and female at all seasons with a short crest; female larger than male; sexes in summer very dissimilar in plumage, in winter quite alike.
The Lesser Florican . — Seasonal change of plumage in male only; male in summer with ear-tufts, each consisting generally of three feathers four inches long with some shorter ones; the long feathers with a bare curled shaft and an oval expansion at the tip; both sexes at all seasons with a short crest; female larger than male; sexes in summer very-dissimilar in plumage, in winter quite alike; first ten quills of wing with tips very attenuated and pointed.
I cannot say how far the character is general, but in some of the Bustards the bases of the feathers of the body-plumage are pink. This pink colour is not visible till the feathers are lifted up. I have been able to examine museum specimens only, some of them very old; and consequently the pink tinge on the bases of the feathers may have disappeared with time. Sportsmen and others should investigate this character when handling freshly shot birds. In the Floricans the pink tinge is present even when the skin is old.