GENUS & SPECIES
• A chicken-sized bird that thrives in a variety of habitats, often nesting near humans
• Uses its long, curved bill to probe mud for invertebrates and to snap up larger prey, such as frogs
• Feeds and nests communally; it is sometimes found in large breeding colonies alongside other species of ibis, spoonbill and heron
WHERE IN THE WORLD?
With its white plumage and black head and bill, the sacred ibis is a familiar sight across much of Africa. Its adaptability and varied diet ensure that it is common throughout its range.
Widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, the sacred ibis breeds around wetlands but is otherwise found wherever there is suitable food, including cultivated fields, and even sewage plants or garbage dumps near human dwellings.
The sacred ibis is migratory and often spends the dry season well over 100 miles from the lagoons and lake margins where it breeds.
A Wading in Estuaries and floodplains offer rich plant and animal life for ibises.
Food & feeding
The sacred ibis has a wide, varied diet consisting mainly of insects, but it also eats crabs, snails, worms, fish, frogs, lizards and small mammals. The sacred ibis takes eggs and nestlings from other bird species; it also eats carrion and is often the first to arrive after a grassland fire to feast on burnt animal carcasses.
Feeding among slow-moving groups of anything between 3-300 birds, the sacred ibis picks food from the ground, probes soil and extracts insects from cracks in rocks or mud with its long, curved bill. As well as feeding on open land, the sacred ibis frequently forages in marshes and watering holes. Sometimes it scythes through the water like the closely related spoonbills, with its bill slightly open — ready to snap up anything it touches.
Into the ibis
Large prey is washed down with a drink.
The sacred ibis was probably the first bird ever to be protected by law. About 2,400 years ago, the Greek writer Herodotus wrote a law that made killing a sacred ibis, even accidentally,punishable by death.Today the species as a whole is not globally threatened. The Aldabran subspecies was endangered until recently, but its numbers are now increasing because of legal protection and management of the island as a nature reserve.
Breeding usually starts during or just after the rainy season. Populations return to the same crowded colonies year after year, and pairs form quickly.
Once a pair has chosen a site, usually in the branches of a thorny tree, the female builds the nest from sticks and grass that the male collects. She lays 2-5 eggs.
Both parents incubate the eggs and also share the feeding duties once the eggs have hatched.The chicks thrust their heads into the adults’ open bills in order to stimulate adults to regurgitate food.
The survival rate for sacred ibis chicks is low, and it is very rare that more than one chick leaves the nest alive.Those that survive continue to be fed by their parents until they are fully fledged.
A sociable bird, the sacred ibis usually travels and feeds in flocks of between 2-20 birds, although it may be found in larger concentrations feeding on abundant prey. Its breeding colonies can number up to 2,000 pairs, in trees often shared with other ibises, storks and herons.
The sacred ibis feeds mainly in the early morning and at dusk It rests in trees during the day, often with its beak agape to keep cool. When it is not foraging or resting, the bird is usually preening or bathing in shallow water, stretching out its neck while vigorously beating the water with its wings.
A Sacred squadron
The ibis is often seen in flocks on flights to winter feeding grounds.
barbecue for birds
A flock probes a marsh for worms as a grassland fire approaches over the horizon.
As the fire burns closer, the flock takes off and heads toward the advancing flames.
They land on the scorched ground and immediately start searching for the fire’s victims.
A tree trunk reveals lizards that tried in vain to hide from the flames. The ibises enjoy the meal.
A tale of two sitters
Sacred ibis chicks are vulnerable at birth; they take up to six weeks before they are fully fledged.
The Ancient Egyptians considered the sacred ibis to be the earthly symbol of Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom. Accordingly, live ibises were kept in temples and later buried with pharaohs. The mummified bodies of 1.5 million sacred ibises were discovered in Ancient Egyptian catacombs.
The sacred ibis is now extinct in Egypt. In the beginning of the 19th century, it underwent a sudden and rapid decline; the last birds died out in the 1850s.
Smaller than the sacred ibis, the strikingly colored scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) lives in northern South America. Unlike the sacred ibis, it is restricted to wetlands where it feeds in flocks, probing mud in search of crabs, worms and mollusks.The scarlet ibis gets its vivid coloration from its food — the red pigments are produced by algae eaten by the ibis’s invertebrate prey.The brightness of the plumage depends on the abundance of the algae. Like the sacred ibis, the scarlet ibis nests communally in trees and often shares its colonies with other ibises and herons. Breeding colonies may contain up to 5,000 pairs.
Weight About 3 lbs.
|Breeding Season||Rainy season; also during dry season in marshes|
|Number of Eggs||Up to 5; usually 2 or 3|
|Incubation Period||About 28 days|
|Fledging Period||35-40 days|
|Typical||Insects, worms, crustaceans, frogs, fish, lizards, small mammals, eggs, carrion|
|Lifespan||Up to 21 yrs.|
• The sacred ibis shares its family with 22 other I ibis species, including the northern bald ibis, Geronticus eremita (below), and 8 species of spoonbill. Its closest relatives are the Australian white ibis and the black-headed ibis from southeastern Asia.