During a recent stay at London Zoo’s (awesome) Gir Lion Lodge, I asked the tour guides what their weirdest animal was. The Australian guide looked puzzled and said he’d never understood why they had white ibis on display, because back home they were known as “bin chickens”. I found this far more amusing than it should have been and laughed for about five minutes.
It seems like such an innocuous bird, but as it turns out, its relationship with Australia is as complex as it is hilarious.
It can’t refuse some refuse
It once shared the name of “sacred ibis” with its African counterpart, but wading through rubbish dumps and prodding picnickers for food has marred its reputation somewhat. In addition to being a “picnic pirate” and flicking rubbish about with its scythe-like bill, the white ibis also lets a nauseating stench stow away under its wings when it swoops in for a peck.
If pickings are good it can gather in large numbers, to the extent there was an “International Glare at Ibises Day” in 2016. But it’s not rooting through rubbish to annoy us. Well, that’s probably an unexpected bonus.
Its home laid waste
There are about twice as many white ibis in the Sydney area as its native wetlands in Australia’s interior. Why? Most likely habitat loss, due to draining for droughts and farmland, which is unfortunate since one of the ibis’ less sneery names is the “farmer’s friend”, thanks to it gorging on locusts. It was from the 1970s onwards that people started noticing the ibis in urban areas, and the abundance of food likely didn’t hurt either.
A city teeming with energy
In a study that probably made them extremely popular, Coogan et al. tried feeding urban white ibis different foods to investigate their fondness for human rubbish. Most of the time carbs were all the rage, but the ibis were distrustful of new or opaque containers, so bird-brained in the best way. They also fed in a surprisingly orderly fashion in small numbers, with one dominant bird snacking at a time. When you live in large groups, you need to have some organisation.
White ibis can form colonies of up to 20,000 pairs, sometimes mingling with the straw-necked ibis in more ways than one. Said pairs are formed by a male grabbing a high branch for a show, and the female accepting his twig if she’s impressed. The pink skin under the wings and back of the head also goes red during the breeding season, so not everything about the white ibis is black and white. Including, it seems, the urban response.
Famed but not shamed?
Despite culls or calls for such in Sydney and Perth, the “tip turkey” has been touted as an Australian icon for the 21st Century, and not entirely sarcastically. It has its own cartoon series “Bin Chickens”, but most hilariously, in 2017 The Guardian launched an “Australian Bird of the Year” competition. Thanks to the efforts of #teambinchicken and others, the white ibis was voted runner up (beaten only by the Australian magpie).
Love it or hate it, any animal that responds to habitat destruction by invading and inconveniencing that of humans deserves some respect!
Latin: Threskiornis moluccus
What? White wading bird with a black head and long curved beak
Where? Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, also sometimes in New Zealand. Formerly in wetlands, now mostly in urban habitats, especially the greater Sydney area.
How big? 63–76 cm / 2-2.4 ft long, with a wingspan of 110–125 cm / 3.6-1.4 ft
Endangered? Nope, Least Concern, and considered a nuisance. Its wetland habitat is under threat, however.
Probable motto: You trashed my home. It’s cool if I crash at yours, yeah?
They look interesting. Do they need my help at all?
Numbers-wise they’re considered a pest, but the white ibis’ native habitat could use some unironic love. Conservation Volunteers Australia and also the Hunter Wetlands Centre run a variety of projects in this regard.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Allatson, Paul, and Connor, Andrea. 2018. “Friday essay: the rise of the ‘bin chicken’, a totem for modern Australia“. The Conversation.
“Australian white ibis“. No date. BirdLife Australia.
Callaghan, Corey T. et al. 2017. “A probable Australian White Ibis Threskiornis moluccus × Straw-necked Ibis T. spinicollis hybrid“. Australian Field Ornithology 34:47-48.
Coogan, Sean C.P. et al. 2017. “Macronutrient selection of free-ranging urban Australian white ibis (Threskiornis moluccus)“. Behavioral Ecology 28(4):1021-1029.
Jones, Ann. 2015. “Hated and misunderstood, the ibis brings an important environmental message“. ABC.
Martin, John. 2017. “The mighty ibis did not win Australian bird of the year but it’s still a winner“. The Guardian.
Matheu, E., del Hoyo, J., Garcia, E.F.J. & Boesman, P. 2019. “Australian Ibis (Threskiornis moluccus)“. In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Stevens, Rick. 2018. “Bin chickens: the grotesque glory of the urban ibis – in pictures“. The Guardian.
“Threskiornis moluccus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Featured image credit: “The Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) with white plumage with a bare, black head, long downcurved bill and black legs”, © Phichak Limprasutr