Misc //

Where are all the Ibis Babies?

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen ibises on campus, but does anyone have any idea where they’re born? Sam Langford and Max Hall look closer.

Art by Stephanie Barahona.

At Courtyard, over something with chorizo in it, someone asks the million dollar question: where are all the baby ibis?[1]

It should be a simple question. The adult ibes, after all, crop up everywhere—from ancient Egyptian murals to the margins of tourists’ selfie-stick Quad shots and the bin outside Taste. In Hyde Park, elderly Ibis umpire games of giant chess, occasionally pausing their supervisory hovering to forcibly extract remuneration in the form of a hot chip or three.[2]

Baby Ibes, by contrast, seems to exist only on Google Images, where, like most things on Google Images, they straddle the line between adorable and horrifying. The chicks look like a drab grey version of the pipe-cleaner-and-pom-pom structures you built in pre-school. They inspire flashbacks of overly proud parents, and artworks that mysteriously disappear from the coveted spot in the centre of the fridge.

Which is an apt comparison, really, because the baby ibis are nowhere to be found.

* * *

As it turns out, every ibis expert in Australia is also mysteriously missing. We compare Out of Office replies, looking for signs of struggle in the metadata. Perhaps the experts are where the baby ibis are—which is to say, disappeared. We check 4chan and Reddit. Eventually, we get a reply from a human: there is a conference overseas. We are terrible journalists.

While waiting for further correspondence, we take matters into our own hands. Armed with David Attenborough tapes, we venture to the nearest wetlands. Our definition of wetland is porous, so we settle on the ‘lake’ in Victoria Park. A few centimetres under its surface, there is a thin strip of metal. It’s a precarious bridge; the sole link from the mainland to the tiny island in the lake’s centre.[3] Unfortunately, we learn this too late. Frustrated and damp, we give up on the outdoors. Wikipedia later tells us we’re too early for breeding season anyway.

Back on the sweet, dry internet, we find horror stories. Specifically, horror stories involving canola oil, which some park rangers spray on ibis eggs to asphyxiate the foetuses. In this Deconstructed Organic Quinoa Muesli age, it’s good to know that even our instrument of mass murder is low-cholesterol.

Other stories are even more sinister. We read of innocent ibis churned to death in jet engines, a mental image as horrifying as the anti-cape montage in The Incredibles. When we later confirm this with Dr. John Martin, a wildlife ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens. He casually relates an incident on the Gold Coast in 1995, where an ibis-engine collision took out the engine. “There were no fatalities for humans,” he assures us, “just the ibis.”

Nonetheless, the damage was done. According to Flight Safety Australia’s January 2005 publication, a Qantas estimate put the repair costs at $8 million, including replacement of the engine. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s riveting 2002 research paper (“The Hazard Posed to Aircraft by Birds”) estimates that bird incidents cost the global aviation industry $3 billion annually. The same paper identifies the ibis as the second most hazardous offender. Perhaps the biggest threat to planes these days is not ISIS, but IBIS.

* * *

Days pass without further communication from John. So far, we have a conjectured massacre, decades-old evidence of birds willing to throw away life and wing to take down planes, and a lot of questions.

We can’t believe no-one has written amateur journalism about baby ibis before.

* * *

Perilously close to deadline, we’re saved by a gentle Microsoft Outlook ding. The email is perfunctory, sleek, black-and-white—much like the ibis itself.

“Hi Sam and Max, we can talk tomorrow. 9231 ****. Kind regards, John.”

Over the phone, Dr. Martin is calm, professional: a conservation enthusiast. He quickly renews our faith in the majesty of the ibis.

“In the 1970s, in the Sydney region, if you saw a white ibis you’d be fairly impressed, if you were a birdo—you’d call up your mates and you’d say ‘come and have a look at this, this great bird is here.’”

It turns out that the ibis, like most of us, commuted to Sydney. However, unlike most of us, capitalism has been very kind to it. Unlike its native wetlands, the big smoke has it all—more discarded Taste baguettes than you can poke a beak at.

Like most conservationists, Dr. Martin is concerned about returning the ibis to its natural habitat. Unfortunately, as he puts it, “why would you give up on the good life?”

As for the baby ibis, they do exist, despite egg and nest “management” programs in various areas. Unfortunately for us, chances of seeing them are slim. Ibis are, according to John, “not a particularly successful breeding species”, and will tend to produce one surviving chick for every 2-3 egg clutch. Those chicks will fledge after 5-6 weeks, leaving an incredibly limited window of fuzzball awkwardness. Given that they tend to spend that time “running around the breeding area”, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing baby ibes frequenting the bins on Eastern Ave any time soon.

We ask Martin explicitly about the culling of ibises. He defaults to euphemistic terms of “management” and “deterrence”, but does acknowledge that the culling of ibis could be reactionary. The Gold Coast plane collision led to “a large amount of management across the coast” as authorities retaliated against ibes for their brethren’s righteous attack against the machines invading their native skies.

* * *

Disturbed by the systematic murder of baby ibes, we approach the admin of Sydney University Ibis Watch, a Facebook page that promises to “[remind] us that, despite its ostensible divinity, ibises too must walk like the rest of us.” He wishes to remain anonymous, but agrees to meet us between the rubbish skips near the Engineering buildings after dark. We don’t manage to glimpse his face during the meeting—just the profile of an ibis mask, and the shadow of papier-mâché wings.

We ask him what he thinks of ibis “management”, to which he gives a thumbs up. His response changes to “oh my God” when he realises what “management” is.

With respect to ibis-plane collisions, he says he’s conflicted. “On the one hand,” he notes, “danger to airline passengers is a serious concern. On the other, our ibis overlords should be feared. And which damnable species stole the number one place from them?[4] I’ll clip their bloody wings.”

Rival Facebook page Ibis out of Redfern NOW is less concerned by ibis-plane collisions. “While $8m is a large number I would guess that it pales in comparison to the social cost of Ibis on the the local community. I have been petitioning daily for years to every level of government and it sounds like it is finally paying off in the form of egg extermination.”

The admin is equally unimpressed by calls for conservation. “Some have mentioned the fact that they are natives—I’ve said it before, Hitler was also a native of somewhere and look at the mess that got us in. I applause (sic) your article and encourage everyone to continue the conversation.”

* * *

So where are the baby ibis? They are in nested in long grass and on the wide fronds of palm trees, watched over by their prominent parents. It’s now apparent that the young have long been protected by the speciesist indifference of the public and a small clique of academics who assiduously avoid the limelight.

Ibis do not stay young for long. They run, then fly, then forage for themselves; taking to the bins and skies of their adopted suburban home to join the throng of wizened adults, fully grown. They are no longer balls of fluff. They are no longer a mystery.


BONUS: How to ibis-proof your jet engine like a pro

Step One: Build jet engine.

Step Two: Throw 3-4 dead chickens into jet engine. Stand clear of viscera.

Step Three: Dry-retch, or if particularly keen, go ahead and actually vomit.

Step Four: Survey the damage, be glad that you’re an engineer and not a janitor.

Step Five: Improve jet engine, repeat from Step One.

Step Six: Pick up some Canola oil at Coles on the way home.


[1] The quick and dirty on plural suffixes: you can use ibises, ibes, ibides or ibis. The first makes sense, the others are for old people, academics and wankers.

[2] Or your fingers—they aren’t fussy.

[3] Unless you have a boat on hand, or a can-do attitude and a spare pair of pants.

[4] The #1 most hazardous bird to planes is the eagle. Flight Safety Australia notes that “As a high flying bird that thinks it is ‘king of the skies’, the eagle is less inclined than some other species to make way for aircraft”. As if it’s the eagle’s fault it got ingested by a jet engine.