The houbara bustard is a small to mid-sized bustard. It measures 55–65 cm (22–26 in) in length and spans 135–170 cm (53–67 in) across the wings. It is brown above and white below, with a black stripe down the sides of its neck. In flight, the long wings show large areas of black and brown on the flight feathers. It is slightly smaller and darker than MacQueen's bustard. The sexes are similar, but the female, at 66 cm (26 in) tall, is rather smaller and greyer above than the male, at 73 cm (29 in) tall. The body mass is 1.15–2.4 kg (2.5–5.3 lb) in males and 1–1.7 kg (2.2–3.7 lb) in females.
The former Asian subspecies, C. u. macqueenii, has now been split as a full species, MacQueen's bustard, Chlamydotis macqueenii. These two species are the only members of the genus Chlamydotis. The Canarian houbara is the subspecies Chlamydotis undulata fuertaventurae. The dividing line between the two Chlamydotis species is the Sinai peninsula. Based on the rates of divergence of mitochondrial DNA sequences, the two subspecies are thought to have separated from a common ancestor around 20 to 25 thousand years ago. The separation from MacQueen's bustard is older at 430 thousand years ago.
The British Ornithologists' Union's Taxonomic Records Committee's decision to accept this split has been questioned on the grounds that the differences in the male courtship displays may be functionally trivial, and would not prevent interbreeding, whereas a difference in a pre-copulation display would indicate that the two are separate species. The committee responded to this scepticism, by explaining that there are differences in both courtship and pre-copulation displays.
The houbara bustard is found in North Africa west of the Nile mainly in the western part of the Sahara desert region in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Some old records exist from Sudan as well. A small population is found in the Canary Islands. The Asian houbara or MacQueen's bustard which was earlier included in this species occurs east of the Sinai Peninsula. The North African species is sedentary unlike the migratory northern populations of MacQueen's bustards.
The subspecies fuertaventurae of the Canary Islands is highly restricted and endangered. A 1997 survey found a total population of about 500 birds.