Firstly just want to share a link to Brizzy May’s Gaia/nature read post on Black Summer the ABC book about the 2019-2020 fire season, another great post from May and a great book, one that is on my to read list.
When I was a kid the Australian white ibis or sacred ibis, (really a misnomer, sacred ibis is a similar species found in North Africa/Egypt), was anything but common in cities or the country regions that I was familiar with. It is a wetlands species, and it has only been with increasing dry conditions we have seen the bird adapt to the urban environment, moving in significant numbers and earning the evocative title “bin chicken”, “tip turkey”, or “rubbish raptor”. Aussies love alliteration, (or maybe it is just me, gumtrees and galaxies).
So how did it come to pass that this elegant wildfowl has become so associated with the refuse of urban humanity?
Degraded natural environment is one part of the equation. In my lifetime we have seen increasing drying of inland swamps and wetlands forcing the migration and decline of many wetland species. It is curious that many species have not adapted as readily and successfully as the ibis, who can now be found in city flocks as ubiquitous as pigeons in London. Drought is part of the answer but habitat loss to farming or other development has also played a role. Humanity’s growth and expansion has undeniably impacted on the wild, bringing the wild into contact with civilisation, whether we like it or not.
The title sacred ibis lends this remarkable bird some dignity even if it is a slight misnomer, they are not sacred ibis in the strict sense that they are not exactly the same species that adorns the banks of the Nile and gives the Egyptian god Thoth his wise knowing look, but they are so similar as to be indistinguishable, to those of us with only basic species knowledge. Many Australians have assumed, they are yet another introduced species and can be treated with the contempt we reserve for ferals. Feral they are not. They belong here and they belong on habitat that we have degraded. Rather than scorn this iconic bird as a dumpster diving scavenger, we are right to celebrate the Australian white ibis as a survivor and a symbol of adaptation. In contemporary business lingo, they are the masters of the pivot. They may have lost abundant lakes of crustaceans, amphibians and fish but they have adapted to the situation with remarkable panache and now wear the title; “Bin Chicken” like a badge of adaptive honour.
I don’t want to sound to enthusiastic for the white ibis’s adaptive ability, our careless and wasteful habits while providing a new food source, also have the potential to add to environmental imbalance. Watching the ebb and flow of ibis numbers in our urban communities and their dietary adaptations lets us see up close and personal the way the environment is changing and how sometimes our simple actions can result in a drastic change in the environmental demographic. Every change can trigger a cascade of consequences, the ibis is a fitting symbol of that idea.
This year as part of the Gaia/nature reading challenge I have been dipping back into the wonderful world of children’s writing and children’s nature books which is how I come to be reflecting on the pivoting superpower of the Australian white ibis. One of the many excellent children’s picture books in USQ’s curriculum collection is Kate and Jol Temple’s delightful Bin Chicken, illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh.
Bin Chicken cleverly examines the ibis’ transformation from sacred bird to rubbish regent, (sorry, alliteration is habit forming). This charming comic, picture book is rich in content, not only illustrating the ibis’ adaptive ability but also posing questions about waste and promoting resilience. The other birds scorn the ibis for her bin raiding antics but as she says to her chicks:
“We’ve learned how to thrive in stormwater drains, at bus stops and car parks and narrow back lanes. These long, boney feet, once made for wading, now make fine stilts for garbage bin raiding. And having no feathers up on our heads was perfect for sifting the old riverbeds. But it works just as well for sticking them in and pulling out scraps from the rubbish bin. We’ve swapped our swamps for the streets of the city, and you’ll meet many who think that’s a pity. They’ll call you Bin Chicken, a foul dumpster diver. But always remember you’re a survivor“.
This is a lovely rich read, which has the potential to inspire all sorts of conversations with kids about environment, adaptation, waste and resilience all while making kids and adults smile. And for the alliteration lovers, there is a sequel: Winner Winner Bin Chicken Dinner. Seeing as how I have promised to donate a children’s nature themed book to the Lighthouse literacy project to celebrate every post for the Gaia/nature challenge for the months of January and February I picked up copies of Bin Chicken and Winner Winner Bin Chicken Dinner to add to the donation pile. More on that to come at the end of the month, in the meantime see if you can make me buy even more books for this charity and read for the Gaia challenge this month.
One area you can see Australian white ibis in their more natural environment is at Lake Apex in Gatton, a lake built on what was formerly Cleary’s swamp, a natural wetland. Back in 2019/2020 I remember the lake being completely dry and pretty much devoid of wetland species, and it had been like that for several years. Finally after a decent wet season, our first in many years, the lake is back to its former glory and filled with nesting water fowl including a sizeable colony of ibis. I am pretty sure there is more ibis there than I have ever seen in that area previously but memory is a tricky thing. Interesting to reflect on why some species are in decline and others seem to be thriving.