Celebrating Ibis

Humans have been celebrating ibis, a large wading bird, for thousands of years. Here is a brief overview and extensive photo gallery of ibis around the world; beginning with ancient times and ending with my favorite.

There are 29 species of ibis in the world today, on all continents except Antarctica.

Ancient Egyptians associated the ibis with Thoth, the God of wisdom and writing. Many ancient Egyptian art pieces present Thoth with the body of a man and the head of an ibis.

The prevalence of the ibis during ancient Egyptian times and the appeal of animal-inspired deities in general, can also be seen in the thousands of surviving ibis mummies in tombs throughout Egypt.

This wood ibis statue below dates to roughly 2,500 years ago.

All classified in the Threskiornithidae family, ibis have the long, downcurved bill as their most prominent feature.

Ibis Wikipedia

Ibis usually live in wetlands (though there are exceptions) using their long bills to probe into mud for food. They eat crayfish, crabs, small fish, insects and other invertebrates and crustaceans common in mudflats and marshes.

The three most common ibis species in North America are the white, white-faced and glossy.

In Northern California we have the white-faced ibis. Plegadis chihi. Populations declined with DDT and threatened marsh habitat from the 1940s to 1980s but have been resurrected via conservation efforts.

I have been birding the Sacramento Valley since the 1990s and have had the pleasure of watching the ibis populations gradually recover here.

This is a good photo (below, center) to demonstrate the size of the white-faced ibis compared to ducks.

Ibis tend to be gregarious birds and are usually seen in flocks.

This is what a flock looks like without optics.

A sight I always find pleasing is watching ibis in flight–they have a characteristic silhouette with their long bill leading the way.

This flock (below) was animated and at times even comical, as they probed the water for crayfish. The crayfish were putting up a fight and had the birds hopping and flopping.

The eastern half of the country is home to the glossy ibis, almost identical to the white-faced. The white-faced species is believed to have evolved from the glossy.

The white-faced ibis only has a white face during breeding.

You can see from the photo below that the back of this white-faced ibis is a handsome array of purple, green and bronze plumage. The glossy ibis has a similar look during non-breeding plumage.

In Florida and many of the Gulf and southeastern coastal habitats of the U.S., the American white ibis is a common wader. Eudocimus albus. Its long, pink bill and all-white body makes it easy to identify.

This photo, below, was taken on Sanibel Island in Florida, where this week they are experiencing terrifying devastation by the wrath of Hurrican Ian. We hope for the best as the folks in SW Florida and the southeastern coastal states endure this extreme storm.

Ibis juveniles are sometimes tricky to identify. The white ibis, for example, has a juvenile stage in which the bird is not white. It is brown.

This is a juvenile white ibis (below, right) we saw on Jekyll Island in Georgia. It is perched in a tree with a wood stork.

In Australia the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) is widespread across most of the continent.

Ibis no longer exist in Egypt like they did thousands of years ago, but there are 11 extant species in Africa.

I have fond memories of Africa’s Hadada Ibis. Bostrychia hagedash. A primarily brown bird, they roosted overnight in the trees of our campsite in large flocks. Every morning they flew off, all in one marvelous squawking cacophony. It was always too dark to photograph them, but below is a good recording of just two Hadada.

Their onomatopoetic name is derived from the loud and distinctive “haa-haa-haa-de-dah” call they make.

Link to recording of two Hadada Ibis calling, South Africa.

I have left my favorite ibis for last–the scarlet ibis. Eudocimus ruber. This marvelously garish bird is native to South America and parts of the Caribbean. We saw it in Trinidad where it is their national bird. A heavy diet of red crustaceans produces the scarlet coloration.

We made a special trip to the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad to see it. We took a boat ride in waning light through swampy channels rife with boa constrictors coiled in mangrove trees above us.

The adventure was much like going out to see the fireworks on July Fourth, exciting and intriguing at the end of the day. But instead of being in the car with friends and family, we were in a boat with a surly captain.

We anchored and waited as the sun fell lower, watching for the scarlet ibis who would be heading to their nighttime roosts.

A few small flocks at a time, they began arriving.

The photo above shows all adults, bright red with black wingtips, except for the brown individual on the far left, that’s a juvenile.

Although we could not get close to the birds due to species protection rules, we did witness the glorious sight of numerous flocks of scarlet ibis descending on island mangrove trees.

Ibis around the world, big birds wading in the mud, yet to humans for thousands of years, we find them exquisite.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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72 thoughts on “Celebrating Ibis

    • I’m really glad to get the feedback on the noticeable increase in your ibis on the east coast, Hien. Yes, those scarlet ibises were absolutely stunning. Thanks very much for your visit, my friend, always a pleasure.

  1. This is great! I loved reading more about the Ibis! When we floated the Green River in Utah last year, we saw a flock of dark colored Ibis that i was told were “ Glossy Ibis”? It was the first time I’d ever seen them in the wild and it was spectacular!

    • Hi Michelle, the ibis you saw in UT was probably the white-faced species. Although there have been sightings of the glossy there, they are far less common. They do look very much alike. Great that you have seen ibis in the wild. Thanks so very much for your visit today.

    • I don’t know all the facts behind the extirpation of the ibis in Egypt, but it might have something to do with the archaeological findings of tens of thousands of ibis mummified in tombs. Yes, the scarlet color on those magnificent scarlet ibis was astounding. We were there at sunset and the glow of the birds was truly breathtaking. I know you can relate well to the magic of sunset, Wayne, with all your millions of days in the field at sunset. Hey my friend, thanks so much!

    • Oh so wonderful that my gardening friend thought of the scarlet ibis as flowers. They were indeed like flowers, Eliza, and I thank you for the POV. Cheers and a smile to you today.

  2. I loved the silhouette in flight image – very distinctive! And the scarlet at sunset, I can see why that is so memorable for you. The surly captain and snakes coiled overhead would also make that a trip to remember…
    Thanks, Jet, I thoroughly enjoyed this Ibis celebration!

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the ibis celebration, pc. It sure was fun putting it together, and I learned some things, too. Yes, the surly captain and snakes coiled overhead certainly did make the trip memorable. Always a joy when you stop by, my friend, thank you.

  3. Interesting post, Jet! So many varieties. But always that distinctive bill that makes them easy(ish) to identify. And, I always enjoy seeing our local birds on your posts!

  4. The ibis are so popular where I live in Florida now.Just three days ago I had two of them in my front lawn. By the way we had the Hurricane Ian pass over the area where I live. We were worried because the weather News said it was going to be devastating. We had heavy rain and gust winds for three days and luckily moved to other places to do a lot of damage. 🙂

    • I liked knowing two ibis, I’m assuming white, were on your new lawn this week, H.J. And I was especially happy to hear you were not pummeled by Ian. The heavy rain and winds must’ve been enough to contend with, especially for three days, but I’m glad you didn’t get directly hit like other folks in FL. Thanks so much for your visit…it put me at ease, for I was thinking of you and your family this week in your new home where Ian was threatening. Take care, my friend.

    • It was amazing to me, too, Anneli, to learn there are so many species of ibis on our planet. I’m glad you had an interest in the ibis, and I thank you for your visit. It is much appreciated.

    • Thanks very much, Craig. I find I don’t study the ibis very much when I’m in the field, because there is no question about their identity. So I enjoyed learning more about them as I researched for this post. I hadn’t really thought about all the times I have seen ibis, so it was fun. And you’re right, the peripheral players (nice words) were fun too. I, too, love the shovelers. Those giant, exaggerated bills. Lots to quack about. Big smiles for you, my friend, and many thanks.

  5. Excellent overview of the varieties of Ibis, Jet. They are such cool birds with their long curved bills. You ended with a bang showing the Scarlet Ibis…what a sight they are lighting up the trees like it’s Christmas! Great info, pictures and entertaining post. 🙂

    • Hi Jane, Lovely as always to have you stop by. I am happy that you noted I ended the post “with a bang” because that’s just what I was going for. They were so spectacular to see. I loved this: “…they are lighting up the trees like it’s Christmas!” I’m glad you enjoyed the ibis post, and so glad you visited. Thanks very much.

  6. So many different Ibis. I’ve only seen one, but we’ll be in Ca later this month and hopefully get to see the white face Ibis

  7. Pingback: Celebrating Ibis — Jet Eliot – Echoes in the Mist

    • Thank you for taking an interest in the world of ibis, Donna. I, too, was surprised there were 29 species of ibis, and am glad I could share the marvels of this lovely bird with you.

  8. Wowie! I’ve never seen ANY ibis! The scarlet ibis is just incredible. Of course, I wondered about those boa constrictors. (Cue the kids’ song “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor….: ) Did they scare you? Cheers.Julie

    • I am delighted to have introduced the ibis to you, Julie, and really glad you enjoyed the post. As for the boa constrictors, yes, I was scared. I had noticed them in many of the trees we boated under, and then we were looking for birds and lingered quite a while under one, I asked the boat driver if they were a problem. He merely shrugged. So then I asked the guide, and he wasn’t concerned either, said not to worry. The snakes never budged but I was glad when we were out in the open waters and out of the channels and boa trees. Big smile to you, Julie, thanks for your visit.

  9. The Scarlet Ibis are beautiful, but I confess a real fondness for the White Ibis. They’re as common as sparrows here, and great fun to watch as they roam everywhere: esplanades, nursing home lawns, marinas. I once found a group of five perched on the benches of a round concrete picnic table, looking for all the world as though they were preparing for a human style lunch.

    Their bills are a great way to monitor soil moisture, too. When they can probe, we know the ground is at least moist. If the ends of their bills are muddy only for an inch or so, things still are dry, but when they’re muddy a third of the way up, we know they’ve been able to search for crawfish rather than just grasshoppers and such!

    I was entranced by that 2,500 year old carving. Fabulous!

    • I liked hearing about your experiences with ibis, Linda, thank you. Glad you liked the ibis carving too. We recently went to an ancient Egyptian exhibit in San Francisco and ibises were of course featured. Sending cheers your way, and thanks.

  10. Ironically, managed to see my first ever Scarlet Ibis at the San Antonio zoo last year – that is a stunning bird- would love to experience it in the wild, but thanks to our visit, I at least recognize one from shots above. Spot on with the difficulties trying to distinguish the juvis/nonbreeding glossies from the-white faced – usually just wait until I can hit a season where the white-faces take on their signature ID feathering. Wonderful look at the Ibis and you took me back to all my college ancient civilization classes!

    • Truly a delight to receive your comment on the ibis post, Brian. I’m happy you had a chance to see a scarlet ibis at the San Antonio Zoo. Their color is a marvel. And now you know at least one place, in Trinidad, where you can go to see them in the wild. My warm thanks.

  11. Thanks for the world tour of Ibis, Jet. It is a rare experience here in New England to see an Ibis and I’ve just seen a Glossy Ibis one time that apparently wandered out of its range. What a sight those Scarlets must have been live as they are pretty awesome on my display.

    • Hi Steve. I’m delighted you enjoyed the ibis post. It was really fun to compose, especially knowing that you have not had many ibis sightings and I could provide you with a nice array. Yes, the scarlet ibis were indeed awesome to see. Took my breath away, literally. As I sat quietly in the boat watching, I gasped several times. They would fly in a way that caught the light of the setting sun giving them the most brilliant glow. Thanks for your interest, my friend, a delight to share it with you.

  12. We’ve been lucky enough to see Ibis near Klamath Lake and down near Magdalena NM… They certainly are pretty special. Oh!!! but to see those scarlett Ibis must have certainly been something SPECIAL!!! (Love the red dots in flight as Athena caught them.)

    • Hi Gunta, lovely to see your visits today. I liked hearing about your sightings of ibis near Klamath Lake as well as Magdalena NM. And it was a joy sharing the scarlets with you. Always lovely to see you, my friend, thank you.

    • I’m so glad you had a chance to see this ibis post, Carol. One of your posts with the hadedas was a great reminder for me of their loveliness, so when I decided to feature ibises, the hadedas came quickly to mind. My warmest thanks for your kind visits and comments today, much appreciated. Sending cheers and smiles to you and your beautiful country.

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