A poem by Philip Larkin, ‘ Toads Revisited’, mentions the local park where ‘Characters in long coats (are) deep in the Litter Baskets’.  When I read this I’m reminded of the tramps of the bird world: the Ibises which you see perched on the edge of rubbish containers in public parks and gardens.  Often all you see is the bird’s backside as its head and neck are lost in the smelly depths of the bin.

The Australian White Ibis was until recently considered to be the same species  as the Egyptian Sacred Ibis. Indeed, there is hardly any detectable difference.  Yet this bird with its scruffy white plumage and scaly, black, featherless head and neck was revered by the ancient Egyptians.  

The Ibis is depicted in Egyptian wall murals; it represented Goth, the god of wisdom and knowledge. It was often mummified – remains have been found in archaeological sites. To think that this revered creature has been known to steal food from unsuspecting picnickers and is today often known as a sandwich snatcher!

Our White Ibis, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, has a body as big as a chicken, long legs and a long, down-curved bill. The species can nearly always be seen in the Royal Botanic Gardens and in Bicentennial, Centennial and Hyde Parks around Sydney.  

We have two other Ibises in the Sydney region: the Straw-necked Ibis which has blue-black iridescent back and wings and yellow throat plumes, and the Glossy Ibis, which is a little smaller and completely bronze-brown in colour. The former can be seen regularly in the paddocks and swampy areas around Windsor in western Sydney. The latter is seen less often, but Sydney Olympic Park is a good bet. Straw-necked Ibises tend to gather in small flocks; the Glossy Ibis is often alone or in twos and threes.

Whatever you think of the White Ibis and its grubby habits and unkempt appearance just remember — the Egyptians used to like them!

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