In 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.
I 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.
Studies and releases of captive-bred birds are being used to bolster these populations and to hopefully establish new breeding sites.
You can follow the movements of 5 tagged Bald Ibis via satellite on the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
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