Australian White Ibis ~ from wetland to urbanland

The Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) also known as ‘Saced Ibis’ is a protected native bird of Australia under the State Wildlife Nature Conservation Act 1992. It is considered a serious offence to harm an ibis.

Sadly, The Australian White Ibis have become a very unpopular bird due its urban migration. These birds have earned themselves several nicknames, such as ‘bin chicken, tip turkey, dumpster diver, foul fowl, rubbish raptor, dump chook and winged rubbish rat, due to their well-known scavenging and pestly habits in urban environments.

Australian White Ibis in its natural environment
Australian White Ibis in its natural wetland habitat
Characteristics

Length: 75cm

Height: 60 – 75 cm

Weight: 1.5kg

Wingspan: up to 1.25m

Females are slightly smaller than males and have shorter bills. 

They are mainly covered in white plumage, with a tuft of cream plumage at the base of their neck and a few delicate black tail feathers. A black vulture-like featherless head and neck, and a long pointed curved downwards bill.  

During breeding season, a small patch of skin under their wings changes from light pink to dark red, as does the skin pigmentation on the back of their head.

Australian White Ibis inflight showing the red skin under their wings
Australian White Ibis inflight showing the red skin under their wings
Red skin at the back of ibis head
Red skin at the back of ibis head
Diet

Both land and terrestrial foods, such as insects, snails, frogs, and seafood is another favourite. Their long bill is designed for digging and prising open mussel shells. Their other favourite food is human food scraps.  

Ibis scavenging human rubbish left on the ground
Ibis scavenging human rubbish left on the ground
Habitat

Their ideal habitat is wetlands, grasslands, and floodplains throughout Australia, except Tasmania.  They live in large colonies of more than 1000 birds, and are a very adaptable species of bird, hence their unfortunate adaptation from wetland to urbanland. They have traded their wetland homes as they no longer are adequate for their needs.

Attributes

The ibis is a beautiful bird and play an important role in nature, and in their natural habitats. They are a “natural pest controller”, as they prey on small insects and grubs.  Many farmers in some regional areas welcome the ibis who will clean up their farms from insects, who would otherwise eat their crops.

White ibis are true survivors, their habitats have been lost, and instead of becoming extinct these birds have managed to adapt to urban living and breeding in cities, alongside people and domestic animals.

BAD RAP 

Over the past 20 years or so more and more Ibis are being seen in towns and cities fossicking through human waste bins rather than in their natural habitats where they belong and are much admired.  It is not known exactly why, but studies have revealed that the loss of their preferred wetland habitats and less availability of food has forced the birds to flee and seek shelter and food in urban areas.  Urban living is providing easy access for the ibis to scavenge on human rubbish for survival.

Australian White Ibis skill-fully scavenging food while taking care not to slide off the smooth rounded bin top
Australian White Ibis skill-fully scavenging food while taking care not to slide off the smooth rounded bin top

They have traded their natural wetland habitats of feasting on frogs and small fish in local waterways to urban living and scavenging on human waste from overflowing rubbish bins. Long-term studies have revealed that the White Ibis has adapted to urban living and have very little fear of people, cars, and other predators, such as dogs and cats. 

Humans leaving rubbish out for the ibis to scavenge
Humans leaving rubbish out for the ibis to scavenge
Keeping bins closed will prevent ibis scavenging on human waste
Keeping bins closed will prevent ibis scavenging on human waste
No fear of cars crossing the road
No fear of cars crossing roads

El-Alamain Fountain Fitzroy Garden, Kings Cross has become a favourite "new wetland" for the Ibis
El-Alamain Fountain Fitzroy Garden, Kings Cross has become a favourite “new wetland” for the Ibis

They have become very adept using their long pointy bills to prise open discarded food boxes, plastic food containers and bags deep inside the overflowing domestic garbage and wheelie bins, many of which are overfilled and overflowing on to the ground.

Dumpster diving in alley ways of Potts Point, Sydney
Dumpster diving in alley ways of Potts Point, Sydney

Their population has increased with more and more of them congregating around rubbish bins in suburbs and parks. They are especially annoying when people sit on park benches eating and ibis stand close by begging, and may often snatch food from people.  Bird strikes have become a problem around airports.

Begging for food from locals who sit and try to enjoy their lunch break in Prince Alfred Park Surry Hill, Sydney
Begging for food from locals who sit and try to enjoy their lunch break in Prince Alfred Park Surry Hills, Sydney
Ibis make huge mess on park benches preventing people from sitting on them
Ibis make huge mess on park benches preventing people from sitting on them
Disease

There are also possible health risks for people and domestic animals. Ibis are known to carry a number of both bacterial and viral diseases such as; salmonella, giardia and avian influenza. To date there have been no known reported cases of ibis to human disease transmission, but as long as they are in urban environments, they remain a potential disease risk.   They are noisy, smelly and create mess from their droppings on park benches, grass and pavements, and often harass people.  

Prevention

Many techniques have been tried to discourage and remove the ibis from urban areas. Installation of bird spikes to deter birds from landing, wire strands to make perching unstable, bright lights shining at night to deter roosting, electrified tracks which emit irritating pulses to deter perching, none of which have worked.  Shooting and culling are not permitted. Permits are required to remove nests, chicks, and eggs.

It is therefore recommended that the best and most effective management strategy is that people do not feed them. Preventing ibis access to water and food scraps in urban environments.  Do not throw food scraps in local park bins and ensure that lids are firmly closed. Reduce areas where there are perches or suitable nesting places to discourage birds nesting. Never harm or harass birds.

Australian White Ibis in their natural wetland environment
Australian White Ibis in their natural wetland environment
Conservation

Population decreasing in their natural wetland habitats and increasing in their adapted urban habitats.

https://australian.museum/learn/animals/birds/australian-white-ibis/

https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/images/documents/plants-animals/animals/living-with-wildlife/ibis_fauna_note_2017.pdf

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