The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) is a special bird. Already the Ancient Egyptians considered it a holy bird – together with the African sacred ibis. It is featured in folklore across cultures and epochs. Nevertheless, it is nowadays extirpated in most of its original range. 400 years ago, the Northern Bald Ibis was common north of the Alps in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as well as around the Mediterranean Sea in Spain, Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. In winter they migrated south, some until Ethiopia. Out of this huge range, only one wild population survived in Morocco that does not migrate, but lives sedentary. But several projects work to reintroduce them in other places.
The ibis in Turkey
In Birecik, Turkey, we get to know such a programme, as we visit the only northern bald ibis population of the country. In this town at the Euphrates river, only 20 km from the Syrian border, the Turkish Department for Nature Protection and National Parks (DKMP) runs a breeding centre in cooperation with BirdLife Turkey (Doğa Derneği). Mustafa Çulcuoğlu, centre employee, birdwatching guide, wildlife photographer and café owner shows us around. He grew up in this town and remembers his youth well, when there were still over 200 ibises living freely on the shores of the Euphrates.
Unfortunately, this population was almost erased and in 1977, only 11 individuals were left. This was mainly due to the usage of the pesticide DDT, which poisoned the birds and small animals that they feed on leading to a food shortage. In addition, intensification of agriculture and channeling of the Euphrates destroyed the wetlands they used as feeding grounds.
The breeding center consists of the aviary and an administrative building that hosts an exhibition about local wildlife. It is surrounded by a protected area.
Return from near extinction
At the last second, the DKMP reacted and built an aviary to keep the remaining 11 individuals safe. Since 1977, the population in the aviary has grown from 11 to 291 individuals. Mustafa explains that reproduction was slow at first, because DDT causes serious genetic damage and many laid eggs were unfertilized or their shells were so thin that they broke before hatching. Sadly, even today, most clutches only consist of 1-2 instead of 2-4 fertilised eggs. However, the population is growing well and most threats are eliminated around Birecik. DDT was prohibited in the 1980s and some feeding grounds were restored.
Unfortunately, this population growth is only possible because the ibises live in partial captivity. Each year between July and the following February, the birds are kept in the centre´s aviary. This prevents their migration towards Ethiopia. But since the population has reached a stable size, every year a number of individuals are left outside the aviary in July giving them the chance to migrate. So if the population is doing so well, why not let all of them set off for migration?
A one-way route
Unfortunately, Mustafa tells us that since 2002, no individuals have returned from their migration. To investigate what is behind this, in 2013, five migrating birds that were equipped with GPS-collars. Their signal was lost in Jordan. Last year, all 13 birds that started migration were seen in Israel but disappeared subsequently. While it is impossible to say for sure what happens to the birds, Mustafa believes that most of them get shot crossing the Arabian Peninsula. Other factors are probably electrocution by power lines and indirect poisoning by eating poisoned mice. Another challenge is that young ibises must learn migration routes from their parents, which is impossible in this scenario. Hence, they might not find suitable wintering grounds or get lost on the way.
In 2022, 30 individuals were left outside the aviary and 19 of them left for migration. But whether any of them will successfully complete their migration is out of the conservationists´ hands. “I pray that history doesn’t repeat itself again, that at least one of them returns next year” tells Mustafa with worry in his eyes.
The ibis returns in Europe
In Europe, the Northern Bald Ibis was extinct in the wild for over 300 years. In 2002, the first individuals were released back into the wild from zoos in Austria. To learn new migration routes, they were trained to follow ultralight microplanes that led them on their migration to Tuscany where they found suitable wintering grounds. This proved to be successful and now there are around 160 individuals that cross the Alps each year on established and safe routes. In Spain, reintroduction was also successful and today there are 180 ibises in Spain that live sedentary like the wild Moroccan population.
A special bird…
After we learn about the ambivalent situation of the ibises in Birecik, our feelings are also mixed and multifaceted – kind of like the species itself. It has been a sacred bird for millennia. Here in Birecik, people believed that it guides pilgrims to Mecca during its migration. On the other hand, it was almost completely hunted to extinction. Its appearance is not commonly considered beautiful from afar with its bald head, black feathers and long crooked beak reminiscent of the masks of plague doctors. But in the sun, the feathers shimmer in a mesmerizing purple and green, especially during breeding season.
The beauty of the bald ibis shines when its plumage shimmers in the sun.
The birds fare well in the big aviary, but no cage is big enough for almost 300 rather large birds. In summer, sometimes the whole group flies in a big flock. But they will never fly together towards the south.
…with an unknown future
Frankly said, under current circumstances, migration is a death sentence for these birds. And it does not look like that will change anytime soon. An international cooperation across the migration route seems impossible due to political tensions and a lack of interest by decision makers. Mustafa also tells us that foreign hunters even travel to places along the migration route specifically to hunt the ibises there.
So what do we see here? A successful effort that saved a rare population from extinction, eliminated most local threats and had great breeding success? Or 300 birds in a cage that have to be kept in there to protect them from humans?
Honestly, we do not know what to think. Nature conservation is often challenging. We are in the sixth mass extinction and a climate crisis caused by humans with unknown consequences. And often, as nature conservationists, we have to hold on to small successes to stay motivated and not become desperate.
And we have to stay hopeful. So, we hope that the work of people like Mustafa will eventually make the migration route safe for the ibises again. That they fly freely again. And then Mustafa will make his dream reality: to follow them on their migration, similar to his Austrian counterparts. Mustafa, thank you for sharing your passion for the ibises with us and we believe your dream will become reality!