The Northern Bald Ibis

10:30 PM


The Northern Bald Ibis, Hermit Ibis (Geronticus eremita) is a migratory bird found in barren, semi-desert or rocky habitats, often close to running water. Adults have a bare head and neck, which are red in colour apart from a black crown. Blueish-purple feathers cover the rest of the body and are long and glossy with a metallic green hue. The upper wing-coverts are a glossy purple-red and the long curved beak is also red. Juveniles have a dark appearance and have grey feathers on their heads.
  

The reasons for the species' long-term decline are unclear, but hunting, loss of foraging habitat, and pesticide poisoning have been implicated in the rapid loss of colonies in recent decades. The species probably split into two distinct populations at least 400 years ago and, since then, the two populations have been diverging morphologically, ecologically, and genetically; nevertheless, the Turkish and Moroccan populations of this ibis are not currently classed as separate subspecies.


Relative Size

            The Northern Bald Ibis is a large, glossy black bird, 70–80 cm (28–31 in) long with a 125–135 cm (49–53 in) wingspan and an average weight of 1.0–1.3 kg (35–46 oz). The plumage is black, with bronze-green and violet iridescence, and there is a wispy ruff on the bird's hind neck. The face and head are dull red and un-feathered, and the long, curved bill and the legs are red. The sexes are similar in plumage, although males are generally larger than females and the longer-billed males are more successful in attracting a mate.


Did You Know

Religious traditions helped this species to survive in one Turkish colony long after the species had disappeared from Europe, since it was believed that the ibis migrated each year to guide Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. The ibis was protected by its religious significance, and a festival was held annually to celebrate its return north.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Ciconiiformes
Family
Threskiornithidae
Genus
Geronticus
Species
eremita

Other Names

German
Waldrapp
French
Ibis chauve
Spanish
Ibis Eremita
  
Status

This species has undergone a long-term decline and now has an extremely small population, with over 95% of truly wild birds concentrated in one subpopulation in Morocco. Northern bald ibis is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List 2007. Listed on Appendix I of CITES and Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (Bonn Convention).

Population

Although the Northern Bald Ibis was long extinct in Europe, many colonies in Morocco and Algeria survived until the early twentieth century, the last colony in Algeria disappearing in the late 1980s. In Morocco there were about 38 colonies in 1940 and 15 in 1975, but the last migratory populations in the Atlas Mountains had vanished by 1989. In Souss-Massa National Park and Tamri, Morocco, 113 pairs nested, out of 319 adults in 2013, and produced 148 fledged young ones.


Habitat

Unlike other ibises, which nest in trees and feed in wetlands, the Northern Bald Ibis breeds on undisturbed cliff ledges, and forages for food in irregularly cultivated, grazed dry areas such as semi-arid steppes, and fallow fields. The close proximity of adequate steppe feeding areas to breeding cliffs is an important habitat requirement.


Range

            The Northern Bald Ibis was once widespread across the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern and central Europe, it bred along the Danube and Rhone Rivers, and in the mountains of Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is extinct over most of its former range, and now almost the entirety of the wild breeding population is in Morocco, at Souss-Massa National Park, where there are three documented colonies, and near the mouth of the Oued Tamri, where there is a single colony containing almost half the Moroccan breeding population.

Biology

The Northern Bald Ibis is very sociable. They leave the colony or roost site in groups early in the morning, and may fly 10 -15 km. They march together at a brisk pace, fanning out in a line and using their long curved bills to probe the sand or shrubs for their prey. The Ibis will hunt for a variety of different prey items from snails, worms, insects, and arachnids to frogs, lizards and even small rodents. At the end of their beak they have very sensitive touch and smell organs and this allows them to differentiate between a potential food and debris.


The Northern Bald Ibis breeds in loosely spaced colonies, nesting on cliff ledges or amongst boulders on steep slopes, usually on the coast or near a river. The ibis starts breeding at 3–5 years of age, and pairs for life. The male chooses a nest site, cleans it, and then advertises for a female by waving his crest and giving low rumbling calls. Once the birds have paired, the bond is reinforced through bowing displays and mutual preening.


The Northern Bald Ibis normally lays 2–4 rough-surfaced eggs and is incubated for 24 –25 days to hatch. The chicks fledge in another 40 – 50 days and the first flight takes place at about two months. The Northern Bald Ibis lives in captivity for an average of 20–25 years (oldest recorded male 37 years, oldest recorded female 30 years). The average age in the wild has been estimated as 10–15 years.


Predators

The well-protected cliff ledges by the sea make access difficult for mammals like foxes, cats or jackals. One of the known primary predators of eggs and chicks is the raven. It has a similar size of the ibises and some individuals seem to specialize on preying on the Ibis eggs and young. Other possible predators include birds of prey, reptiles and domestic cats and dogs.
  

Threats

It has declined for several centuries, perhaps partly owing to unidentified natural causes. However, the more recent rapid decline is undoubtedly the result of a combination of factors, with different threats affecting different populations. In Morocco, illegal building and disturbance close to the breeding cliffs and changes in farming on the feeding grounds are the threats that may have the most severe impact on the population. Hunting is the main threat to the tiny Syrian population, and overgrazing and collecting of firewood have reduced habitat quality in feeding areas. Pesticide poisoning has also had disastrous consequences, most notably in Turkey in the late 1950s, when hundreds were killed outright by DDT (sprayed to kill mosquitoes), with the survivors subsequently suffering very low breeding success.


Conservation Measures

           Bird Life International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have been working alongside local people to research and monitor this enigmatic species. A major step has been to train and manage a team of wardens in Morocco to monitor breeding and roosting sites, prevent disturbance by tourists or fishermen, collect information, and make local people aware of the bird’s significance.


In 1991, the Souss-Massa National Park was designated specifically to protect nesting and feeding areas and in 1994, a monitoring and research programme was set up involving local people The provision of freshwater near the breeding colonies in the national park has been shown experimentally to increase productivity, A captive breeding centre has been built at Ain Tijja-Mezguitem, northeastern Morocco, and is stocked with zoo-bred imported birds. Six pairs bred in 2006 and successfully reared six offspring. In 2007, the aviary contained 19 birds (13 adults and six juveniles). A reintroduction is planned once the population has reached around 40 birds. Other captive breeding schemes exist or are planned in Austria, Spain and Italy, and programmes of releasing captive birds are either in progress or in the experimental phase.
  

References

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