Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hello ibis...goodbye garden bugs

The plumage on immature ibises is brown with white undersides.

Simply Living
August 7, 2011

An immature white ibis (Eudocimus albus) is using our container garden as its personal foraging grounds. This is the first ibis — juvenile or full-grown — to visit any of our gardens. We frequently see ibises by the lake feeding in the shallow water. But in the 20 years we've lived here, none has ever before ventured into our backyard where the container garden is located.

This bird must think he stumbled upon a bonanza!

In mid-summer when there is so much to do outside, the maintenance of the container plants tends to fall by the wayside. We continue to irrigate and are still harvesting various heat-loving vegetables, fruit and herbs. But other than brief forays to gather figs, basil, tomatoes or parsley, the area is mainly ignored.

This lack of attention has enabled a mean tangle of out-of-control weeds to flourish. The weeds have produced so much tall, bushy growth the already narrow aisles between rows have essentially disappeared. The garden has become a moist, lush, largely left-alone area — an ideal foraging spot for an immature white ibis.

Unlike adult ibises, which have white plumage with black wingtips, immature members of the species are mainly brown with white markings on their rumps, underwings and bellies. Both young and old have long pinkish-red legs and curved pinkish-red bills. Males and females look very similar, although the males are slightly larger weighing in at around two pounds.

The white ibis is a common wading bird in Florida and throughout the Southeast. Perhaps one reason the population of this bird has thrived when other wading bird species have declined is its ability to adapt to different habitats and foods.

These 2-foot tall trawlers tromp through almost any damp area — saltwater, freshwater, mud holes, marshland and short grass — to find edible delicacies such as snails, crayfish, crabs, worms, insects, frogs, snakes and small fish. With its long, curved beak slightly ajar, the ibis is able to probe the ground, plucking food by touch and sight.

In the garden, the ibis doesn't always walk on the ground and it doesn't always use its beak to probe the soil. Sometimes it gets right up into the pots, stepping from one container plant to another. Instead of poking the ground for insects, it plucks at spiders and bugs on the leaves above its head. I was amazed the first time I saw it standing in a 15-gallon pot of broccoli, stretching its curved beak upward to snatch some sort of edible from an overhead leaf.

While most birds are wary of people, the white ibis seems to tolerate a certain amount of human intrusion. On numerous occasions, I have surprised it in the garden. Although obviously startled by my sudden presence, the young bird didn't fly off. Instead, it moved a bit farther away as if to say, "All right, I'll get out of your way so you can pick your cherry tomatoes and gather your basil, but make it quick then get out of my garden!"

Having an immature white ibis frequent our garden has enabled me to learn so much more about this species than I ever knew before. I now know ibises are not nearly as nervous around people as are many other birds. I know they endure downpours by finding a place to stand on the ground and staying there until the rain stops. I know they spend a lot of time searching for food, eating the food they find and (much to my husband's dismay) leaving the discharged results of their diet right there where they've been feeding. I've also learned how difficult those large, sticky droppings are to remove from bare feet and the bottom of sneakers.

At some point, the young ibis will molt, changing color from brown to white. When that happens, there's a good chance it will give up its independent ways to forage with others. White ibises are highly social birds that normally breed, roost and feed in flocks. That means I have a small window of opportunity to observe a bird that I may never be able to follow so closely again. If the price I must pay for this unexpected opportunity is a bit of poo on my shoes, so be it. Sometimes it's a wiser move to scrape shoes than say "shoo!" to one of nature's fascinating creatures.

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