The Northern Bald Ibis—A Grounded Migrator
A FAMILY of five is ready to embark on a long journey, and well-wishers have turned out to say good-bye. The family take one last look at the place that has been their home for a long time and then set out. While the onlookers watch, the five go off into the distance and disappear from view over the horizon.
We are at the Bald Ibis Breeding Station in Birecik, Turkey, a town next to the Euphrates River. The family that has just departed is a group of northern bald ibis, an endangered species. Each bird has a satellite tracker attached to its ankle. The well-wishers—the staff at the station and the visitors—anxiously watch as the birds fly off into the unknown, worried that the family might not return home.
What kind of bird is the northern bald ibis? Where does it go when it migrates? And why is there so much interest in its migration?
Meet Our Feathered Friend
When the northern bald ibis first hatches, there are feathers on its head. As it matures, however, those feathers are lost, accounting for its name. On the rest of its body, the bald ibis has black feathers that turn shades of bronze-green and violet in the sunlight. Except for the very top of its head, its skin and beak are red. The bald ibis also has long plumage down the back of its neck.
An ibis matures after three or four years. Its normal life span is between 25 and 30 years. It eats insects, lizards, and even small mammals. Females can produce one to three eggs a year and will incubate them for about four weeks. The birds have a striking characteristic—they mate for life. When one dies, its mate mourns the loss. In fact, the surviving mate has often been observed starving itself to death or even plunging to its death from a high rock face.
The local people of Birecik will tell you that up until about the turn of the 20th century, the return of the bald ibis from its migratory journey was a cause for celebration. It was viewed as a harbinger of spring. During the celebration, held in the middle of February, boats would be dragged onto dry land from the Euphrates River, accompanied by drumbeating and festivities.
In those early years, flocks of bald ibis were so numerous that they resembled a giant black cloud in the sky. However, in the last century—and particularly in the past 50 years—their numbers have plummeted. There were once 500 to 600 breeding pairs at the Birecik colony, but the population was dealt a heavy blow when agricultural pesticides were introduced in the 1950’s. Today there are very few of these birds left in the world.
Conservation Efforts in Turkey
The Bald Ibis Breeding Station was established in Birecik in 1977. The birds were allowed to migrate every year—that is, until 1990, when only one returned. After that, they were prevented from migrating. At the time the birds would normally begin migration, between July and August, the staff would take them into aviaries. The birds would be released in February or March of the following year, when they would have been returning.
In 1997 it was decided to attempt a migration. Unfortunately, none of the 25 birds released were ever seen again. From 1998 onward, all the birds continued to be taken into aviaries to prevent them from migrating. Still, the colony thrives. At present the breeding station has a population of almost a hundred.
The Future of the Northern Bald Ibis
Sadly, only two of the family of five mentioned at the beginning of this article returned. Then, in 2008, another group of birds was allowed to migrate. Tragically, they too did not make it home. Authorities report that the birds reached as far south as the country of Jordan but died of poisoning. This means that in spite of the increase in population at the breeding station, along with all the efforts of scientists and government authorities, the fate of the northern bald ibis still hangs in the balance.
These recent attempts have shown that despite being grounded for their own safety, the bald ibis have not forgotten their migratory instincts. This confirms the words of the Bible found at Jeremiah 8:7: “The stork in the heavens—it well knows its appointed times; and the turtledove and the swift and the bulbul—they observe well the time of each one’s coming in.”
[Picture Credit Lines on page 10]
Left: Richard Bartz; right: © PREAU Louis-Marie/age fotostock