The stunning white ibis is a midsized aquatic wading bird growing about 2 feet tall with just over a 3-foot wingspan.
Mature adults are mostly white with black-tipped wings, a colorful red face with blue eyes, red legs and a very distinct down-curved, pink bill, which is used to probe mud and water while foraging for food.
White ibis live in coastal marshes and wetlands. They range from Baja, California, east through south Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia; north to coastal North Carolina; south throughout the larger Caribbean Islands such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, and into South America to Peru. They are found throughout most of Florida.
White ibis are sociable year round, roosting and feeding in flocks and nesting in large colonies, called a rookies. When groups wade through shallows, probing with their long bills, other wading birds such as egrets may follow them to catch prey stirred up and missed by the ibises.
They forage in any kind of shallow water – salt, brackish, freshwater marshes, mangroves and even mudflats, flooded pastures and lake edges. The ibis’s diet is quite variable, but crayfish and crabs are major items. They also eat insects, snails, frogs, marine worms, snakes and even small fish. They forage by walking slowly in shallow water, sweeping their bill from side to side and probing the soft murky bottom. They will also forage on land, especially in mud or short grass. They find food by touch while probing, by sight at other times, opportunistically seizing items from the surface. White ibises may steal food from each other and, in turn, have food stolen from them by larger species, such as great blue herons.
Historically, like many showy aquatic birds, the white ibis was heavily impacted by the feather industry for women’s fashions in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
This decline in their population led to the creation of and protection from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Since then, because of this protection, species numbers have increased to a point where in 2017, they were removed from the Florida protected species list. However, they remain managed by the Imperiled Species Management Plan sanctioned by our state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Like many aquatic and wetland-dependent wildlife species, the main threat to the white ibis is the loss of wetland habitat due to the human development of coastal areas and their freshwater foraging areas. This habitat loss and water pollution decreases the availability of prey.
Male white ibis are super territorial and protective. They diligently guard the nest and their female mate to prevent other ibises from stealing sticks from the nest and from advances of other males during nest building and egg laying. When baby white ibises hatch, their bills are straight. Their bills don’t start to curve downward until they are about 14 days old.
In the 1830s, John James Audubon, colonial ornithologist, reported that the white ibis was hunted and sold in Louisiana, and mainly eaten by Indians. It had orange flesh and a strong fishy taste.
Native American folklore believed the brave white ibis was the last to seek shelter before a hurricane, and the first to emerge afterward. The bird was thus a symbol for danger and optimism. Not by coincidence and affectionately named Sebastian, the white ibis is the mascot of the University of Miami. According to school legend, the white ibis was chosen for their heroic ability to withstand hurricanes and other violent storms.
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