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 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.