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A moving tale - the Australian White Ibis

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Dr Ursula Munro from the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, takes a closer look at the Australian White Ibis, a bird with a bad reputation.
Australian White Ibis have established large colonies in cities on our eastern coast. In Sydney, for example, there are colonies in the Botanic Gardens, Warwick Farm and Lake Gillawarna in Bankstown. There is also a colony on the central coast at Woy Woy. The management of these bird “pests” relies on preventing nest construction, removing nests, scaring them off with noise or bird culling. Yet, as Dr Munro points out, this management takes place without knowing anything about the biology of the species in their natural habitat let alone in their newer coastal colonies.
Left: Parks, it would seem are for people and NOT birds and especially Ibis!
Below: A main problem with ibis in parks and other areas frequented by people is that they tend to be VERY communal and may roost in hundreds in the same tree.  Not only can this destroy the tree but the piles of droppings on the ground are less than endearing.

Dr Munro has been researching the Australian White Ibis for at least six years, when she was first approached by Birds Australia in relation to concerns about birdstrike at Sydney Airport, following an ibis strike at Cooloongatta Airport.
She found that the numbers of the Australian White Ibis were declining dramatically in its traditional breeding grounds, the inland wetlands such as the Macquarie Marshes and the Murray-Darling river system.


In particular, it was the very low water levels that were impacting the most, meaning that the ibis would not breed. This has been a long process, starting with removal of so much water from the river systems for irrigation purposes and then exacerbated by the prolonged drought. It is important to realise that ibis are only one of many bird species that are impacted in this way. However, we tend to notice them more because they have relocated inconveniently in large numbers to our coastal towns and cities. In response to the dwindling water resources, ibis began relocating to establish new coastal breeding grounds from the late 70s and early 80s. 
Ursula is concerned that with virtually no ibis breeding occurring in their natural habitat, they may become extinct in these regions.

Ibis are unfairly stereotyped as scavengers featuring obviously on open tips and foraging through uncovered public rubbish bins.  It is quite overlooked that our open bins and tips are rich breeding grounds for flies and other insect pests and since ibis are primarily insectivorous (they are known in the country as 'The Farmer's Friend' for their voracious appetite for locusts) their presence probably helps manage insect pest numbers. 

Above: Scavengers or pest controllers?
Below: UTS research team banding, measuring and collecting vital statistics on white ibis.

Dr Munro says it is surprising that although ibis are so common, very little is known about their life span, their breeding patterns or the success rates of hatching or survival of fledglings. 
We do not even know the age make up of the colonies in coastal areas.  Once birds are adults, it is not possible to tell their age, unless they have, for example, been banded but concerted banding programs are only very recent. 

However, ibis may be very long lived since recently a banded bird was recaptured that was 26 years of age. This has a possible downside in light of the present management programs being used to contain ibis numbers, including destroying eggs or even culling adults. 
It is quite possible, that it may be only the older adults who are surviving (if egg destruction is excessive) and at some stage when they die the whole population will crash. 


Ursula and her postgraduate team are involved in an extensive research and banding to provide the information that can give us some insight into the projected future for this species.

All photos from Ursula Munro      Text by V.B.   February 2008

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Rejuvenation - the results of recent rain Tips for urban Ibis colonies

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