Bird of the week – Week 50: African sacred ibis

One of the important gods in the pantheon of Ancient Egypt was Thoth, often depicted as having the head of a Sacred ibis (he is sometimes depicted as having the head of a baboon, but the connection between the ibis and the baboon escapes me). The Sacred ibis was generally venerated during that period of history in Egypt and was sometimes mummified and entombed as a symbol of the god Thoth. It was also believed that the sacrifice of one of these birds could bring to an end a pestilence of flies.
The African sacred ibis is found throughout Africa south of the Sahara and is a common resident of most parts of southern Africa with the exception of the very dry Kalahari and Namib deserts. It is a large bird, with a length of around 88 cm, and is predominantly white, with a black head and neck and an untidy patch of black feathers on its lower back. Its head and neck are bare of feathers and coloured black. When in flight it shows a black trailing edge to its otherwise white flight feathers and has a line of bare red skin under its wings. The long decurved bill is black as are the legs and feet and the eyes are brown. The sexes are alike in plumage, but the males are slightly larger than the females.
The African sacred ibis has proved to be very adaptable in terms of its habitat and its food, and as a result is very common and widespread. It is found at most inland waters as well as coastal lagoons, and has adapted well to the presence of man, often being found at sewage works and rubbish dumps, cultivated lands and playing fields. It feeds on small mammals, eggs and nestling birds, frogs, fish, offal and scraps of discarded food found amongst human refuse. In its more “natural” habitat on the coastal mudflats it is a delight to watch as it walks forward slowly and deliberately, probing into the mud and taking live prey.
Although very gregarious and often to be found in large flocks, the African sacred ibis is a relatively quiet bird, reserving its croaks and squeals for when it is nesting. Although it is monogamous, it is a colonial nester and large numbers of birds may nest in the same vicinity, building nests of sticks, usually in a tree but sometimes on the ground, and lining them with leaves and grass. It often nests in the same area as other wading birds such as herons. The female lays a clutch of two or three dull white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 28 days.
The scientific binomial of the African sacred ibis is Threskiornis aethiopicus; Threskiornis from the Greek words for “a religious bird” and aethiopicus from the Latin for “from Ethiopia”.  Thus we have a religious (or sacred) bird from Ethiopia, which was probably a pretty accurate description a few thousand years ago.

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