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The White / Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) is a species that’s widespread in northern and eastern areas of mainland Australia, with isolated populations thriving in the south-western corner of the continent and, for aeons, the birds have been content to inhabit areas adjacent to coastal and freshwater wetlands, tidal estuaries and shallow lakes, but the environment is continually changing, and White Ibis have taken the changes in their stride.
Water is an essential component of any habitat that can support them, and during periods of drought, when shallow lakes and streams have vanished and left nothing more than muddy puddles and cracked soil in their wake, large populations of White Ibis are forced to find somewhere new to call home. In recent decades they’ve discovered inviting alternative habitats with permanent sources of water and ample supplies of food, and the birds have enthusiastically taken up residence in urban areas and in woodlands that hem the waterways that slice through many cities and towns.
They’ve proved to be extremely adaptable, and their diet reflects that adaptability. It includes a wide range of aquatic prey, such as insects, fish, frogs, yabbies, other small crustaceans and mussels that the birds discover while wading through shallow water and probing the mud with their long bills. They dine in agricultural areas too, and are welcome visitors, thanks to their voracious appetites for grasshoppers, locusts and other insects, and although these imposing birds are invaluable warriors that are on the side of farmers in their perpetual battle to control insect pests, not everyone is happy to have them on their doorstep, and in urban areas it’s the birds themselves that are often regarded as pests.
Large populations have become permanent squatters in parklands, they scrounge for food at outdoor cafes and in popular picnic areas, and they scavenge for scraps in rubbish tips in such huge numbers that they’re disparagingly referred to as ‘rubbish dump chooks’ and ‘tip turkeys’. And although it’s difficult to accurately assess the population of urban White Ibis, there are believed to be in excess of 5,700 birds in Sydney alone, with the city’s major rubbish tip visited by some 800 birds every day.
With climate change predicted to punish the Australian landscape with more frequent and more prolonged periods of drought, White Ibis will be in no hurry to abandon the easy life that they’ve discovered in Australia’s sprawling cities and suburbs. And these majestic birds, which are either adored or despised, will remain on the doorstep of millions of people for many years to come.
The Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis), which is also featured in this photo gallery, is a less familiar species, and, unlike its closest relative, never threatens to make itself unwelcome in an urban environment.
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