Meanwhile, the ibises are going to be totally fine without us

By Angela Heathcote 16 April 2020
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Our bin chicken friends are smart enough to survive without us.

WONDERING HOW OUR bin-pillaging, savvy-scavenger friends are coping during the COVID-19 lockdown, which has forced humans indoors and with them all their delicious food scraps? Well, scientists say they’re probably doing just fine without us. 

Forced to abandon their traditional wetland homes several decades ago due to drought and human development, Ibises have since become smelly characters in Sydney’s urban sprawl, breeding near Sydney’s most beloved ponds and surviving off soggy chips.

Most human interactions with the ibis occur in the city’s parks, where ibises are either hand-fed food by an admittedly small group of admirers or, more boldly, steal right from under your nose. For this reason, you’d be forgiven for thinking they can’t survive without us, but you’d be wrong.

Matthew Chard, an expert in ibis behaviour from the Australian National University, has spent a lot of time observing the feeding habits of these charismatic birds. His research, published in 2018, found that ibises are capable of weighing up food options

“During periods of rainfall, I found the ibis would move to larger parks such as the Domain or the Royal Botanic Gardens,” Matt explains. “Rainfall often meant less people visiting parks with food for them to scavenge. So the ibis would change their foraging strategies and head to these larger parks in search of the abundant invertebrates within the soil.”

Related: Isolation has forced me to learn more about the pigeons outside my window

According to Matt, their beaks are perfectly designed to snap up invertebrates and small fish on mud flats and soft soil; that they’re perfect for rifling through bins is mere coincidence. This means they can easily make the switch from soggy chips to Hyde Park’s delicious earthworms.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown, ibises may be forced to once again change up their foraging strategies. “I would suspect that ibis would still visit the smaller parks in the morning hoping for the early morning rush commuters,” says Matt. “However, these are intelligent birds and they may not hang around long when they realise their foraging opportunities have dwindled.”

Exactly how long it would take for an ibis to decide to move on from these foraging patches is of great interest to Matt’s research. “Once our restaurants and food outlets reopen, how long until they change back to their old ways? One thing is for sure, the ibis have been extremely successful in the urban space and are highly adaptable to change.”

The recent wet weather has also made these natural foraging opportunities more plentiful. “Water in the soil forces invertebrates up in the soil table where they become more easily predated upon by the ibis. Further, rain makes the soil softer which means the ibis can penetrate deeper and find those hard to reach critters.”

It’s true that ibises and humans have a strained relationship. Additional observations Matt made during his research suggests that most of our interactions with the highly-intelligent bird were negative, but Matt holds out hope for ibis-human relations. 

“Once you get over their size and general appearance they have quite a bit of personality. I like to think that as the ibis have grown in popularity over the past couple of years more people are coming to really enjoy their presence. 

“People just need to remember that it was us humans that ruined their natural habitats, they just simply decided to move in with us until we solve the issue.”

As for whether they’ll survive without us during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Matt says ibises are capable of living in cities without our assistance. 

“There are ample food resources in our cities to sustain ibis populations without assistance from humans. These birds are highly adaptable and will change back to foraging for natural prey if their anthropogenic sources dry up.

“They’ll fare better than other birds such as the pigeon but I don’t think we will have to be doing any food drops to help the ibis anytime soon.”