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The Bald Ibis – Working with the Middle East’s Rarest Bird

Bald IbisIn the early 1980’s I had the good fortune to work with the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita.  Also known as the Waldrapp, the group I cared for at the Bronx Zoo provided a unique opportunity to refine breeding techniques and observe complex social behavior.  Today Bald Ibis are secure in captivity, but their future in the wild remains uncertain.

Recent Population Trends

The “ugly-cute” Bald Ibis once nested in Europe and most of the countries ringing the Mediterranean.  Due to pesticide use, habitat loss and hunting, populations plummeted rapidly after 1940. By the time I received the birds mentioned above, breeding colonies were limited to Turkey, Morocco and Syria. In 1990, the Turkish population was declared extinct (a semi-wild group, which winters in aviaries and is released each spring, has since been established there).

Today a mere three breeding colonies, numbering perhaps 400 birds in total, are known.  Approximately 1,200 Bald Ibis are held in zoos.

Caring for a Bald Ibis Colony

A look at the attached photos and linked video will show why these sizable birds attracted immediate attention at the Bronx Zoo…they look like nothing else on earth!  Also, they are quite active and continually squabble among themselves while emitting the most unusual cacophony of clucks and grunts.

Bald Ibis HabitatI housed the group of 20 ibis in a large outdoor exhibit designed to mimic their natural habitat…cliffs adjacent dry steppes near running water (please see habitat photo).  A heated shelter was provided, but the hardy birds spent even the most frigid winter nights in their small, exposed caves, which also served as nesting sites.  I shuddered to see them half covered with snow as I arrived to work on pre-dawn winter mornings, but they fared well and produced a great many chicks.

I fed the ibis a mix of horsemeat, bird of prey diet, fish, earthworms and insects.  They consumed an amazing quantity of food, and spent much of the day foraging for the many invertebrates drawn to their exhibit.  I’m sure that this highly varied diet contributed to their breeding success.

“Convincing” Ibis and Flamingoes to Breed

Bald Ibis seem to require group stimulation in order to breed regularly.  Recent breeding failures at the Bronx Zoo were remedied when keepers flooded the exhibit with a recording of the sounds of another breeding group.

I’ve had to similarly encourage many other captive birds over the years.  For example, I recall building mud nests in order to get a colony of Chilean Flamingoes in the mood (this worked!).

A Tiny New Population is Discovered

Hopes for the Bald Ibis’ recovery were boosted in 2002, when a small group took up residence near Palmyra, Syria, where they had not been seen in over 70 years.  However, only 7 birds remained in the area, and soon only a single pair remained in all of Syria.  This month (July, 2011), however, that pair fledged 2 chicks…their first in 3 years.

The Bald Ibis in Morocco

The largest Bald Ibis breeding colony, consisting of approximately 110 pairs, is to be found in Morocco’s Souss-Massa National Park.  Tourists here have caused problems by disturbing the birds, and poaching flares up on occasion.  Donations to assist the group Birdlife in hiring more wardens may be made here.

Bald IbisAn additional 100 or so Bald Ibis reside along the Atlantic Coast of Morocco.

Studies and releases of captive-bred birds are being used to bolster these populations and to hopefully establish new breeding sites.



Further Reading

You can follow the movements of 5 tagged Bald Ibis via satellite on the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Video of Bald Ibis Feeding

Northern Bald Ibis International Advisory Group

Bald Ibis image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Christoph Schmidt
Bald Ibis habitat image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Jimfbleak
Bald Ibis image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Richard Bartz


  1. avatar

    Very interesting read about this endangered bird and the breeding techniques were fascinating…

  2. avatar

    Thanks for your interest and the kind words. I look forward to your future comments.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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