African sacred ibis

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African sacred ibis
Threskiornis aethiopicus -Mida Creek mud flats, Kenya-8.jpg
Foraging in Mida Creek mud flats, Kenya
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Threskiornithidae
Subfamily: Threskiornithinae
Genus: Threskiornis
Species: T. aethiopicus
Binomial name
Threskiornis aethiopicus
(Latham, 1790)
Natural Range of T. aethiopicus
African sacred ibis.Ystad/Sweden 26 dec 2015.

The African sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) is a species of ibis. Its sister species is the Australian white ibis.


An adult individual is 68 cm (27 in) long with all-white body plumage apart from dark plumes on the rump. Wingspan is 112 to 124 cm (44 to 49 in) and body weight 1.35 to 1.5 kg (3.0 to 3.3 lb).[2][3] Males are generally slightly larger than females.[4]

The bald head and neck, thick curved bill and legs are black. The white wings show a black rear border in flight. The eyes are brown with a dark red orbital ring.[2] Sexes are similar, but juveniles have dirty white plumage, a smaller bill and some feathering on the neck, greenish-brown scapulars and more black on the primary coverts.[2]

Flying in South Africa

This bird is usually silent, but occasionally makes some croaking noises, unlike its vocal relative, the hadada ibis.

Habitat and distribution[edit]

A wading bird of the ibis family, Threskiornithidae, the sacred ibis breeds in Sub-Saharan Africa, southeastern Iraq, and formerly in Egypt, where it was venerated and often mummified as a symbol of the god Thoth. The African sacred ibis occurs in marshy wetlands and mud flats, both inland and on the coast. It will also visit cultivation and rubbish dumps.


The breeding colony in Montagu, Western Cape, South Africa

The species breeds once per year. Breeding season is from March to August in Africa, from April to May in Iraq.[2] It builds a stick nest, often in a baobab tree. The bird nests in tree colonies, often with other large wading birds such as storks, herons, African spoonbills, African darters, cormorants. It may also form single-species groups on offshore islands or abandoned buildings.[5]

immature, Uganda

Females lay 1-5 eggs per season, incubated by both parents for 21–29 days.[3] After hatching, one parent continuously stays at the nest for the first 7-days.[2] Chicks fledge after 35–40 days and are independent after 44–48 days, reaching sexual maturity 1–5 years after hatching.[3]


The species feeds primarily by day, generally in flocks wading in shallow wetlands. The diet consists of various fish, frogs, small mammals, reptiles and smaller birds as well as insects and other invertebrates, and carrion.[2][5] It may also probe into the soil with its long beak for invertebrates such as earthworms.[5]

As an introduced species[edit]

The African sacred ibis has been introduced into France, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, and Bahrain.[6][7][1] Some studies indicate that the growing introduced populations in southern Europe have significant economic and ecological impacts,[8] while others suggest that they constitute no substantial threat to native European bird species.[9] The adaptable ibises supplement their diet by feeding at rubbish tips, which helps them to survive the winter in these temperate regions.


The African sacred ibis is classified as "Least Concern" by the IUCN. The global population is estimated at 200,000-450,000 individuals but appears to be decreasing.[1] It is covered by the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.[citation needed]

In myth and legend[edit]

Copenhagen Museum

Venerated and often mummified by Ancient Egyptians as a symbol of the god Thoth, the ibis was, according to Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, also invoked against incursions of winged serpents. Herodotus wrote:

There is a region moreover in Arabia, situated nearly over against the city of Buto, to which place I came to inquire about the winged serpents: and when I came thither I saw bones of serpents and spines in quantity so great that it is impossible to make report of the number, and there were heaps of spines, some heaps large and others less large and others smaller still than these, and these heaps were many in number.

The region in which the spines are scattered upon the ground is of the nature of an entrance from a narrow mountain pass to a great plain, which plain adjoins the plain of Egypt; and the story goes that at the beginning of spring winged serpents from Arabia fly towards Egypt, and the birds called ibises meet them at the entrance of this country and do not suffer the serpents to go by but kill them. On account of this deed it is (say the Arabians) that the ibis has come to be greatly honored by the Egyptians, and the Egyptians also agree that it is for this reason that they honor these birds.

In more mythical stories, it was also said that the flies that brought pestilence died immediately upon propitiatory sacrifices of this bird.[10]

Research from 2015 using 14C radiocarbon dating suggests that the Egyptian Ibis mummies that were analyzed in the study were from time frame that falls between approximately 450 and 250 BC. This timing falls in Egyptian history between the Late Period to the Ptolemaic Period.[11]


  1. ^ a b c BirdLife International (2012). "Threskiornis aethiopicus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Ramsey, C. "Threskiornis aethiopicus". University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Animal Diversity Web. 
  3. ^ a b c "Sacred Ibis Bird". Animal Corner. 
  4. ^ "African sacred ibis". sa-venues. 
  5. ^ a b c "Threskiornis aethiopicus (African sacred ibis, Sacred ibis) ". Biodiversity Explorer. 
  6. ^ Yésou, Pierre; Clergeau, Philippe (2005). "Sacred Ibis: a new invasive species in Europe" (PDF). Birding World. 18 (12): 517–526. Retrieved 9 January 2017. 
  7. ^ Charlier, Phillip (25 April 2016). "The Sacred Ibis Runs Rampant in Taiwan". The Wild East Magazine. Retrieved 9 January 2017. 
  8. ^ Kumschick, S.; Nentwig, W. (2010). "Some alien birds have as severe an impact as the most effectual alien mammals in Europe". Biological Conservation. 143 (11): 2757–2762. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.07.023. 
  9. ^ L. Marion: Is the Sacred ibis a real threat to biodiversity? Long-term study of its diet in non-native areas compared to native areas. In: Comptes Rendus Biologies. Volume 336, Number 4, April 2013, ISSN 1768-3238, S. 207–220, doi:10.1016/j.crvi.2013.05.001. PMID 23849724.
  10. ^ Pliny. "Chapter 41". Natural History. Book X. 
  11. ^ Wasef, S.; Wood, R.; Merghani, S. El; Ikram, S.; Curtis, C.; Holland, B.; Willerslev, E.; Millar, C.D.; Lambert, D.M. "Radiocarbon dating of Sacred Ibis mummies from ancient Egypt". Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. 4: 355–361. doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2015.09.020. 
  • Barlow, Clive; Wacher, Tim; Disley, Tony (1997). A Field Guide to birds of The Gambia and Senegal. Robertsbridge: Pica Press. ISBN 1-873403-32-1. 

External links[edit]