The birders’ column

Photo: Albert Froneman

This is a white bird with an unfeathered black head and neck with a long, decurved heavy black bill. Its iris is dark-brown, and ringed with red when breeding. The elongated, plume-like blue-black scapular feathers are puffed out in display, making it appear black-tailed at rest. The flight feathers are black-tipped, giving a narrow black edge to the wing. Legs and feet are black with a red tinge. During breeding, the naked skin on the underwing turns scarlet, and the flank feathers become yellow. Groups of birds often fly in a “V” formation to and from roosting and feeding sites.
The African Sacred Ibis occurs throughout virtually the whole of Southern Africa, but is absent from most of Namibia and the Kalahari sandveld.
Their distribution is Sub-saharan Africa, Madagascar, Middle East and Australia. They are gregarious by habit and flocks may number hundreds of birds. They are common to very common residents in a wide variety of habitats. Some birds are nomadic or migratory within South Africa as far as Namibia, Botswana, Angola and Zambia. They are subject to considerable local movement since it takes advantage of rain-filled pans in almost any part of the country. It would appear that many of the southern birds move northwards during the dry season. Although usually in flocks, individuals are sometimes seen far from their normal range.
This Ibis favours inland waters, cultivated lands, sewage works, playing fields, open grassland, rubbish dumps, coastal lagoons, tidal flats as well as offshore islands. It often scavenges around farmyards, dairies, piggeries and abattoirs, searching for food by probing their strong bills into mud and soft soil. They also forage in other habitats, taking live prey, and walking slowly with deliberate steps. Their food is very varied; mostly arthropods, small mammals, nestlings, eggs of birds and crocodiles, molluscs, frogs, small reptiles, offal, carrion and seeds. They are known to be scavengers and will feed on nestlings, particularly those from nests of other birds within the colony.
In flight wingbeats are shallow, alternating with short glides. They gather in considerable numbers to roost in trees, reedbeds or on islands. They are normally silent with loud croaking at breeding colonies.
The breeding season is from August to April in colonies, sometimes in hundreds. The nest is a platform of sticks, lined with leaves and grass, built in trees, bushes or on the ground. The clutch is usually three dull white-tinged bluish green eggs, with reddish brown spots. Both sexes share an incubation period of 28 days. Nestlings fed by both parents leave the nest at 20 days, flies at 35 days and leave the colony after 48 days.
Visually, this is not a very attractive bird. It invariably has an ungroomed look about it, especially in breeding plumage. Their feeding habits are unsavoury, and the hoarse – wheezy call at the colonies are decidedly unpleasant to listen to. A redeeming feature is when they are in the air, flying purposefully in their familiar V- shape skein. A hundred or more birds in formation, arranged one behind the other, each benefiting by the tailwind created by the bird in front.
A very appealing aspect is the periodic change of the “V” shape leadership, whereby the front bird drops back a place or two, with the bird behind moving forward to take the lead.
The African Sacred Ibis is observed daily over Hartbeespoort.

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