Monday, April 14, 2008

River, Reflecting the Sky

As the seasons change in Brisbane the sky along the river valley becomes clearer, a more intense blue which is reflected in the river's brown muddy flow. Different birds appear. This week a lone Straw-Necked Ibis patrols near the trail, searching the hardened earth with its scythe-like bill for food. Honeyeaters chirp piercingly as they hop among the drooping leaflets of the Allocasuarinas along river's edge. Mudlarks, Butcher Birds, Magpies, Currawongs, Brush Turkeys are the usual fare but watching quietly there's always a constant movement of small birds in the bushes and branches overhead.

I've seen the lone Ibis for several days now. It wanders the grassland searching for food. Straw-Necked Ibis are the most common Ibis species in Australia and normally live in huge colonies sometimes numbering up to 200,000 birds. Frith's bird book describes the cacophony when such large numbers get together as 'deafening in volume' (1976:89) as well as flattening the bushes all around with their bulk.

With the story of their communal living arrangements, a lone Ibis seems out of the ordinary. But the Frith says that young can wander from the nest at three weeks so perhaps this is simply a juvenile bird who's wandered off.

Just a short distance away the Straw-Neck's cousin, the White Ibis is flourishing. Normally White Ibis feed in waterways but the drought has brought flocks into the cityscape where they ferret in rubbish dumps and along nature strips. As they become urbanised, their stunning white plumage turns a dull grey. People say, 'look at those dirty birds, aren't they horrible' and shoo away what were and are still wondrous feathered beauties.

The ABC site Scribbly Gum calls these city dwellers 'bold' as the birds have learnt that humans are repositories of tasty snacks and so they may rob humans of their lunch as they patrol city parks and cafe areas on the lookout for someone with food. This inquisitiveness has led local residents to call them 'pests'. The media reports an Ibis 'invasion'. And this negative stereotype is just part of their problem.

According to Sydney-based Ibis researcher, Ursula Munro, city flocks of Ibis can grow so large that the pressure on local food, nesting sites including the build up of faeces becomes so great, they eventually overdo it. Then along comes local Councils with eradication programs.

The researchers say that programs which destroy the nesting sites or prevent eggs from hatching might actually have a more serious long-term effect. If the drought continues and more and more Ibis make their home in the city, and if more and more residents call for the birds' removal, then these once abundant regal birds who ruled the inland waterways will be under severe threat.

The Brisbane City Council maintains that White Ibis are harmful environmentally, socially and economically. Environmentally large numbers put added pressure on native animals and local vegetation. Socially they 'may reduce the recreational value of parks and public areas. The main issues of concern are smell, noise, unsightliness and defecation'. But of course, this definition of 'socially' is human-centred. The Ibis's view might be completely different. Ibis are known to be very gregarious, so perhaps they are simply hungry and nosey at the same time. Economically they are seen to be problematic as cleaning up after these supposed messy creatures can be costly.

Seen as a problem in contemporary society, it was not always so. In fact they were regarded as sacred.

According to fossil records, Ibis are 60 million years old. Sacred Ibis, similar to White Ibis, were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as the god Thoth who wears the head of this sacred bird with a bill reminiscent of the crescent moon. It's said that Thoth invented hieroglyphics. Perhaps this development may have been in communion with the Sacred Ibis. As a result, this clever and adaptable bird was considered a symbol of wisdom because of an image of its quill-like shaped bill dipping into ink.

Ibis were also venerated for their power of protecting the land from plagues and serpents. Since then they have been very useful in agriculture for keeping crop-damaging pests at bay - although more recently, this role has brought the additional hazard of contact with damaging pesticides.

The NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change booklet on Ibis states that 'Australian White Ibis are an integral part of our cultural heritage. Their long-term presence in the landscape is reflected in Indigenous Culture and stories across Australia. For thousands of years ibis have been sacred to communities, and an indicator of environmental wellbeing.' (Legoe and Ross, 2007). But, the sustained drought has brought tremendous pressure on inland wetlands and over recent years numbers of birds have dropped substantially.

The booklet laments the decline stressing the importance of waterbirds as a significant indicator of healthy wetlands ecosystems, while the population health of nesting colonies' is indicative of the vitality of the wetlands they inhabit'. Thus the recent influx of Ibis into the city seems not to augur well for the future health of neither Ibis population nor wetland.

Once the Sacred Ibis was the indicator of the health of the land in its role as protector of crops from plague and serpent in ancient Egypt. But sadly the birds have not been able to protect themselves from human intervention, and Middle Eastern Sacred Ibis are now in danger.

Meeting birds along the trail lead me on all sorts of pathways. I thank the inspiration of the lone Straw-Necked Ibis who inspired this blog.

Frith HJ, Ed, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd., Surry Hills, NSW.
Legoe C and G Ross, 2007, NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, Wild About Ibis: Living with Urban Wildlife, Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW.