Our beloved ibis “Unk Unk Taw Aw”

The sex life of birds can be very interesting, migratory bird expert Bob Westerman says.

For example the jacana bird female has lots of boyfriends. She mates with one male after another and dumps the kids on them. It’s the males who build the nests and rear the young while she goes on her bonking spree. Swan males get a herd of females, but the wives go off in the middle of the night to find young attractive guys. Wrens mate for life but have flings all over the place and rear the young no matter where they come from.

Unlike these birds, the average Gold Coast ibis has no fascinating tales of infidelity. The very successful sexual union between two consenting ibis once or twice a year is just a dull temporary arrangement to produce three spotty eggs.

The Australian white ibis were uncommon on the Gold Coast 20 years ago, but since they arrived they’ve been very successful breeders, Mr Westerman says.

A little grubby and slightly foul smelling but successful breeders.

A possible reason for the breeding success is this omnipresent GC bird with the bald black head and long drooping beak is a real Rudolf Valentino.

The male ponces around tips and swamps between cavorting around the city raiding bins and café tables. A bit of a bogan romantic.

Around February to April he attracts the female’s attention by sitting in a high branch of a tree and being noisy and showing aggression to other males, the birdsinbackyards website says.

Then he turns on the sophistication when the female comes over by bowing to her and offering her a twig to share.

He goes a bit gooey when they start preening each other, then they fly off to build a nest together.

The honeymoon is a communal affair with lots of unking and taw-awing, among other ibis and various waterbirds in a nesting colony often at a wetlands.

Ibis are historically rare in urban areas but numbers on the Gold Coast and elsewhere have increased because of climate events like droughts since the 1970s.

A 2007 ABC report Ibis invasion says, “Their real homes are the massive inland waterways of NSW and Queensland such as the Macquarie Marshes, where they breed in thousands.”

However studies show the ibis had completely abandoned breeding in the Macquarie Marshes in 2000, compared to 11,000 nests surveyed in 1998 only two years earlier. The wetlands had shrunk massively as a result of low rainfall and this is about when Bob Westerman noticed ibis increasing around urban Gold Coast areas.

Aerial surveys of the marshes in 2004 recorded less than 20 waterbirds in the area, and in 2005, less than 10, a 2007 document from the Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW says.

Drought and water extraction for agriculture impacted the ibis’s wetlands, the report says, forcing ibis and some other species of waterbirds to seek an alternative place to breed.

Their urban migration signalled a huge change in their lifecycle, because ‘til then ibis instinctively returned to where they were born to breed. Ibis have been recorded travelling from Victoria to Papua New Guinea, and newly fledged ibis have been recorded flying over 3000km, so they have a lot more potential than just jumping up onto bins like a lot of people think.

“I think birds talk to one another and they decide to do things differently,” Mr Westerman says.

For instance he says, “Nowadays kookaburras steal steak off barbies but they never used to do that.”

He says ibis have long beaks to probe marshes and grass for invertebrates such as worms, crayfish and mussels, but it wasn’t a huge shift for them to eat scraps like bits of bread and meat.

“Birds will make an adaption to change to suit their eating habits. They’ve discovered they can get food off tips.”

They get filthy in colour from rummaging in garbage and may not be in optimal health because of the scraps they eat, but the Australian white ibis is a lovely bird, the bird expert says.

Michael Pyne is the head vet at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital. He has treated hundreds of ibis over the years and about 20-30 so far this year.

Dr Pyne sees less ibis compared to other species because they are “smart and tough”. He only sees them when they are very badly injured, eg hit by cars, but they enjoy high recovery rates.

“Ibis are a pretty smart animal – they keep themselves out of trouble and they are tough – they can cope without being 100 percent and they can just about outsmart anyone trying to catch them.

“They get a bad name because of their intelligence. They know where the food is and they adapt.

“This is the reason they do so well around people because they adapt so well to people leaving food around.”

Their toughness and intelligence explain why they are here in the first place. When their traditional ibis habitat stopped providing their needs they searched for a place with plenty of food where they could breed and found the Gold Coast

They are a bird with many contradictions because their survival in their traditional wetlands is incredibly vulnerable, but their success in the city has made them a pest.

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Mic Smith is the co-creator of a blog about ibis. Mozart and Coltrane: Dirty Ibis

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