The ancient Egyptians venerated the ibis. Followers of ibis cults would visit temples and purchase mummified ibises for use in votive offerings. The ibis was a sacred bird associated with creation and fertility and knowledge and learning. The ibis cults became so wildly popular that priests began breeding and rearing the birds onsite, specially for mummification. In the Serapeum in the city of Saqqara, archaeologists discovered 500,000 mummified ibises in stoppered ceramic pots, and 4,000,000 were reported to have been found entombed in the city of Tuna-el-Gerbel.
I grew up alongside the Macquarie River in western New South Wales. Its waters feed the Macquarie Marshes, one of Australia’s most important wetlands. In the lignum swamps there, hundreds of thousands of ibises would flatten the wiry lignum shrubs to create vast colonies of rookeries. When the masses of white and black birds took flight their wide wingspans crowded out the sky.
The public’s recognition of the Marshes as a special place for ibis and the other waterbird species made the Macquarie the first of Australia’s regulated rivers to be provisioned with a proto-environmental flow in the 1950s.
After a dam across the Macquarie was completed in the 1960s, the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission lost interest in providing this allocation of water, and instead maximised the benefits for irrigators at a cost to the environment and local communities.
Whenever I tell people about the Marshes I show a video of an old newsreel from the 1950s. Black-and-white footage shows a man on horseback, the animal’s legs sloshing though the reed beds and the rider ducking under Red Gum branches. The sequence opens out to a lagoon rimmed with tall rushes and pans towards flocks of ibis.
We’re shown wetlands crowded with reed and lignum nests, thousands of hatching ibis chicks, birds taking up every perch. Towards the end, the music swells, ‘the birds take off, rising swiftly to the safety of flight, more and more birds go up to join those already in the air, swamps take on new beauty with the reflection of ibis in flight, the beating of wings grows’.
We’re told to witness the end of an era, the inevitable passing of Australia’s primordial wilderness in the face of progress and civilisation, for ‘the 46 miles of swamp will dry up when the Burrendong Dam is constructed’ at the Macquarie River’s headwaters. The ibis will need to go ‘elsewhere’. Confidently, at the climax, the narrator declares to soaring music ‘this is a different Australia, unknown to the city man, the vast, almost untouched country, of illimitable space, and illimitable opportunities’.
Then I contrast the historical film footage with photos of the Marshes today – the tracts of dead river red gums, the collapsed reed bed systems, the silence and stillness of clapped-out ecosystem on the brink. One time a person in the audience said, ‘I feel like slitting my wrists after hearing you speak.’ I reckon grief is sometimes the appropriate response.
For more than three decades ecologist Richard Kingsford has studied the Marshes and surveyed populations of waterbirds such as ibis. In the 1980s, Kingsford’s surveys averaged 20,000 waterbirds from more than 20 species, in the 1990s it dropped to 5,000 birds from 13 species, and since the year 2000 the survey averaged 600 birds from only nine species. In 2007 his team did not see any waterbirds in an aerial survey of the northern marsh.
Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, as more large dams were completed across the rivers of eastern Australia, that ‘elsewhere’ for the birds became the cities where our waste is a source of nourishment for ibis displaced from their habitats.
We call them bin chickens, tip turkeys and dump chooks. We complain about their presence, appearance and smell. Instead, we should wonder at their ingenuity and gritty determination to survive. They are ‘a marvel of evolution’, reported Anne Jones for ABC Radio National.
Ibis are sentinels of the Anthropocene, the epoch in our planet’s geological history named after us because we have altered so much of its systems. The ibis call our attention to our shadow places, the places we draw resources from but don’t have to think about. While the rivers remain out-of-sight and out-of-mind, the unscrupulous will continue to think they can get away with stealing environment flows, tampering with water meters, and corrupting the public administration of water.
I’m heartened to see the social media campaign in support of the maligned ibis. Perhaps this is the first step towards resurrecting an ibis cult.
At the Marshes, environmental managers continue to decide which parts of the wetlands to save and which parts to let go. The reinvigorated environmental flow regime is slowly making improvements. The birds are coming back, and will continue to do so, but never in their former numbers.
In Egypt, habitat destruction, agricultural development and long-term drying of the climate have caused local extinction of the Sacred Ibis. Let’s hope that’s not the fate of Australia’s White Ibis in our pursuit of illimitable opportunities. We have a duty to our new neighbours from the bush, our sacred bin chickens.