Yin and Yang: A tale of two ibis

Anand Krishnan writes the next story as part of Specimen Tales


Today, we tackle two birds, similar, yet different. Both birds are ibis, with long, curved probing beaks, and both stand out within this family in sporting a punk hairdo: bald skin at the front of the head, and a frill of feathers behind it.  Both are cultural symbols in their respective ranges, and both, sadly, have dramatically declined to near-extinction. That, however, is where the similarities end, as the two are markedly different both in plumage, and in the habitats they inhabit. The following is a discussion of the birds themselves, and their cultural and conservation history in the regions they inhabit.

The first is the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita), a bird of barren and arid habitats that once occurred throughout Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. This black bird with a bronze glistening iridescence to its wings has been well known to man since antiquity. It was so well known to the ancient Egyptians that it is represented by its own hieroglyph (akh, meaning ‘shining’). Legends in Turkey hold that Noah released a bald ibis from his ark as a messenger of fertility, hope for a devastated world. The bald ibis was first described in 1555 in the Historiae Animalium by Conrad Gesner from Switzerland as a species of “forest crow”. The idea of the bird as a crow can also be seen in the evocative German name waldrapp, which means as much. Over the next three centuries, the bird disappeared entirely from Europe, so completely that the waldrapp was thought to be a myth until the late 19th century. The bald ibis as we know it was described from Northern Africa, where, too, it declined through the 20th century due to habitat loss and hunting, while also disappearing from the Middle East. Today, the bird is extinct from most of its former range. A semi-wild population in the village of Birecik, Turkey, and a tiny population (possibly now extinct) in Syria are all that remain of the Middle Eastern population. The only truly wild population survives in and around Souss-Massa National Park in Morocco, breeding on barren cliffs near the coast. Current numbers hover at around 500 birds, boosted by intensive conservation and captive breeding. It is hoped that ongoing reintroductions in Spain and Austria will return the waldrapp to at least some of its former haunts.

Further to the east lives the second of our ibis under discussion, this one looking almost like a photo-negative of the first. Strikingly beautiful in its snow-white  (pearl-grey in the breeding season) plumage with a pale salmon-pink blush to the wing-coverts, the Asian Crested Ibis (Nipponia nippon) formerly bred in temperate forests in Siberia, China, Korea and Japan. Conraad Temminck first described the species from Japan in 1835 based on specimens collected by Philipp Franz von Siebold. The very name of this species commemorates the archipelago of Japan, and the bird, known as the toki, was depicted in many cultural artworks from the era. The pale pinkish color of the underwings was referred to as ‘toki-iro’, or ‘ibis color’. Formerly common over much of its range, the Crested Ibis declined dramatically during Japan’s Meiji Restoration, when hunting became rampant. Much like the previous species, it disappeared from most of its range over the 20th century due to habitat loss and hunting, and by 1981 was only known from Sado Island, Japan (the last few birds were taken into captivity, but never bred, rendering that population effectively extinct). Then, in that year, a tiny population of seven birds was rediscovered in Shaanxi, China. Three decades of intensive conservation work has increased the population to nearly 600 birds today, and reintroduction programs are underway at Sado Island to restore the toki to its natural home.

Similar and yet different, black and white, endangered yet (hopefully) recovering numbers somewhat, from the arid sands of Morocco or the mountain forests of China, these ibis represent two sides of the same coin. Their remarkably similar cultural and conservation histories in spite of their disparate life histories underscore the fragility of the natural environment. Sacred cultural symbols may be discarded by the wayside as the times change, and what was once an integral part of the environment may disappear in an instant. The success of conservation efforts, however, provides some hope that these symbols of ancient culture may yet be preserved. Are we not, then, preserving a piece of our own history as well?


Figure 1: Left: 19th century painting of a Northern Bald Ibis by Otto Kleinschmidt from Naumann’s Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas. Source: Wikimedia commons. Right: Specimen of a Northern Bald Ibis in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.



Figure 2: Left: 19th century painting of an Asian Crested Ibis from the Fauna Japonica. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Right: Specimens of Asian Crested Ibis in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

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