Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii)

Cover image of Ludwig’s Bustard by Rick Nuttall – Murraysburg district, Western Cape – BirdPix No. 192436

Identification

The Ludwig’s Bustard is a relatively large and fairly conspicuous species, especially in flight and when the males are calling and displaying.

In males, the crown, face and fore-neck are dark sooty brown. The folded wings are intricately patterned in various shades of brown. The wing coverts are brown and white. The hind-neck is bright orange-brown and the sides of the neck and the entire belly are white.

Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) Male – Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape
Photo by Desire Darling

Females are similar but slightly smaller. They have paler heads and fore-necks with white mottling. The orange-brown hind-neck is also duller.

Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) Female
Karoo-Gariep Nature Reserve, Northern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

This species is often confused with Denham’s Bustard (Neotis denhami). Denham’s Bustard is larger, has a pale grey fore-neck, a darker, more chestnut hind-neck and a black and white-striped crown and face.

In flight Ludwig’s Bustard shows white inner primaries and minimal white on the coverts. In Denham’s Bustard the coverts are mostly white.

Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) 
In flight shows white inner primaries and minimal white on the coverts.
Near Petrusburg , Free State
Photo by Rick Nuttall

Carl Ferdinand Heinrich von Ludwig, in whose honour this species was named, was a citizen scientist. He was born in Germany in 1784, trained as a pharmacist, and came to a post in Cape Town in 1805. By 1807, he was one of nine official pharmacists in Cape Town. He did lots of activities two centuries ago which today would be described as citizen science initiatives. You can read more about him here. He died in Cape Town in 1847.

Distribution

Ludwig’s Bustard is scarce to locally common and is near-endemic to southern Africa. Its range extends marginally into south-western Angola. It occurs in southern and western Namibia, extreme south-western Botswana, and widely in central and western South Africa. It is a marginal, non-breeding visitor to Lesotho. In the Western Cape, it is largely confined to the Karoo and Namaqualand, south to the West Coast National Park. It penetrates beyond the Karoo into the fynbos biome mainly during dry winters.

Ludwig’s Bustard is currently listed as Vulnerable. They are highly prone to collisions with overhead transmission lines and often get tangled up in jackal-proof fencing. Hatching success is also low. Despite this there is no evidence of any major range changes. Its distribution overlaps slightly with Denham’s Bustard in the Western and Eastern Cape.

SABAP2 distribution map for Ludwig's Bustard
SABAP2 distribution map for Ludwig’s BustardNeotis ludwigii – February 2023. Details for map interpretation can be found here.

Habitat

Ludwig’s Bustard inhabits dry open plains, from grassland to desert.

It is most numerous in the arid and semi-arid dwarf shrublands of Namibia and the Karoo. It also frequents the drier western grasslands in South Africa and arid woodlands of the southern Kalahari. It also makes occasional use of agricultural areas in the fynbos biome of the Western Cape.

Often frequents bare open areas within these habitats such as gravel plains and dry watercourses, especially on calcrete. May gather in numbers to forage at dry pans and dams especially when there is a flush of short, green vegetation after the water dries.

Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) – Khorixas, Namibia
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen

Behaviour

Usually found singly or in groups. Small groups of three or four birds are normal but larger groupings of up to 36 birds are regular. The largest recorded group size is 270 birds but this is exceptional. Larger groups are not cohesive but rather loose aggregations at a concentrated food source such as locust swarms or termite alates. They are partially migratory and probably nomadic. Their movements are largely influenced by rainfall.

Occasionally forages alongside Kori Bustard and has been known to join groups of Denham’s Bustard in areas of overlap. Spends most of its time foraging by walking slowly and pecking at the ground but will run after large insects. Ludwig’s Bustard is omnivorous and the diet consists of arthropods and vertebrates as well as a range of plant material. Arthropod prey includes locusts, beetles, ants, termites, flies, centipedes, spiders, scorpions etc. Vertebrates taken include rodents and reptiles and they consume a fair amount of vegetable matter such as seeds, berries, leaves and bulbs.

They seldom drink water, because they obtain most of their moisture requirement from the food they eat.

Ludwig’s Bustards are polygynous whereby males mate with multiple females during the breeding season. Males establish regularly used lek sites where they display competitively in order to entice females for mating. Leks are mostly situated in prominent positions such as on a rocky ridge. Each lek site holds from one to three males, each of whom defends his immediate vicinity from rivals through complex posturing. Displaying males are normally spaced about 300 m apart.

A male during balloon display
Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) – Graaff Reinet district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Alan Collett

Displaying starts at or before first light and continues for two to three hours. Males perform what is known as a ‘balloon’ display. To begin, the male stands tall with wings drooped and the tail held level. He then erects his neck and breast feathers and inflates the neck with air. After a pause the air is then forcibly expelled from the inflated oesophagus. The ‘balloon’ serves to resonate and amplify the booming call over a great distance. This display also serves a visual function and is conspicuous from a good distance. The display is usually also accompanied by foot stamping. Displaying often resumes in the late afternoon and may continue up to 30 minutes after dark.

Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii)
The lek site is typically situated on a raised, rocky ridge.
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Attracted females fly or walk to display sites, either singly or in groups of up to three birds. Displaying lasts around six weeks following spring rains.

Breeding mostly takes place between August and December in South Africa and during March in Namibia.

One or two eggs are laid per clutch and no nest is constructed. The eggs are well camouflaged and are laid in the open on bare ground, or in a shallow scrape, often among stones. All incubation and parental care is performed by the female. The incubation and fledging periods are unrecorded and the chicks are highly precocial.

Further Resources

This species text is adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Alan Collett, Desire Darling, Johan van Rooyen, Rick Nuttall and Tino Herselman is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Ludwigse pou (Afrikaans); Iseme (Xhosa); Khupa (South Sotho); Ludwig-trap (Dutch); Outarde de Ludwig (French); Ludwigstrappe (German); Abetarda de Ludwig (Portuguese).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii). Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at http://thebdi.org/2023/02/28/ludwigs-bustard-neotis-ludwigii/

Bird identificationbirding

Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii)
Middelburg district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!