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Return of a bird we almost lost

July 27, 2020

This article comes from China Watch, an advertising supplement to the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 26, 2020 edition. This supplement is essentially an advertisement for China and everything it does. Nevertheless, I found it interesting and because it’s unlikely to be able to link to it (as it’s a big ad), I’m reproducing it in its entirety.

Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon
(Photo: Danielinblue, Sep 3, 2013, Wikipedia)

Return of the bird we almost lost.

By Yang Wanli with contributions from Zhao Xinying

The Crested Ibis, an endangered bird know as the “oriental gem” that was once thought to be extinct is far from it, and now there are 5.000 of them worldwide thanks to many years of conservation efforts, forestry authorities say.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature once designated the Crested Ibis, which many Chinese regard as a token of luck, as critically endangered, there having been only seven known living specimens in the 1980s.

“Strong protection efforts over the decades have helped boost its population,” Dang Shuangren, director of the Shaanxi Forestry and Grassland Administration, said on June 22. :Now thee are more than 5,000 Crested Ibises worldwide. About 4,400 of those are in China, 4,100 in Shaanxi province.”

The administration has published a report that says the habitat of the species has expanded from less than 2 square miles in the 1980s to about 5,800 sq. mi. now.

The bird existed in many regions in the world, including China and Japan. However, its population fell sharply because of human activities.

In 1981 Yangxian county in Shaanxi reported seven wild Crested Ibises, the only wild population in the world at the time. The recent report said the birds can now be seen in six cities and towns along the Qinling Mountains.

“Since the first captive-bred Crested Ibis was successfully released into the wild in 2013, we’ve received reports on the existence of the birds in regions outside of Shaanxi,” Dang said.

As the birds mainly live in the qinling Mountains, Shaanxi has built several natural reserves there since 1965. Since 1999 commercial logging has been banned in the region, and an environmental protection regulation dedicated to the area was adopted in 2007.

Construction of the Xi’an-Chengdu high-speed railway, which began operating in 2017, took into account the protection of the Crested Ibis.

I did a little more research on the bird.

From the Natural History Notebooks of the Canadian Museum of Nature:

The Crested Ibis is one of the rarest of all ibises. It is an endangered species that was once thought to be extinct in the wild.

Crested Ibises stand around 56 cm (22 in.) tall and have a wingspan that reaches 140 cm (55 in.). They are white with black, down-curving beaks and red faces and legs. They have crests that earned them the name, in ancient literature, of Xuan-mu, which means “whirling eyes”, because of the bushiness of the crest and its placement behind the eyes . During breeding season, the crest, head, neck and back are grey.

Tragically, the stunning crests are one reason for the disappearance of this species. The plumes were popular as hat ornaments, and indiscriminate hunting, coupled with habitat loss and agricultural pollution, eventually pushed this species to the brink of extinction.

Crested Ibises forage in wetlands, as well as ploughed fields and rice paddies, for crabs, frogs, small fish, river snails, earthworms and insects such as beetles. Both parents share the job of hatching the three to four eggs that are placed in flimsy twig nests built in tall trees. The removal of trees in their nesting habitat has also been cited as a reason for their decline.

Formerly common in Japan, China, and eastern Russia, by 1981 there were believed to be only five Crested Ibises in the wild, all on Sado Island in Japan. These were captured and placed in the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center with hopes that a captive breeding program might save the species. That same year, a Chinese researcher discovered seven wild Crested Ibises in Yang Xian county, Shaanxi Province, China. This was more than fortunate because the captive Japanese birds failed to produce any young, and eventually they all died. The protected Chinese population began to increase, and in 1990, 25 ibis chicks were captured and placed in a protection and rearing centre. Eventually they began to produce young, and within a decade there were more than 130 Crested Ibises in captivity.

It appears that the Crested Ibis is now on the road to recovery, with the total population of wild and captive birds currently greater than 600. In autumn 2008, 15 captive ibises in Japan’s Yasei Fukki Station were being prepared for release into the wild. In April 2008, a Crested Ibis was sighted on the southern Yangtze River in China—the first to be seen there in fifty years.

And then there’s always good old Wikipedia, the source of the photo at the top. Among their many facts, I found:

They make their nests in pine forests at the tops of trees on hills usually overlooking their habitat. They eat frogs, small fish, and small animals. At one time, they were in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Russia, but has now disappeared from almost all of its former range. This species is the only member of the genus Nipponia.

BirdLife International’s Data Zone page has interesting information plus a map. Here’s a sample.

Ecology:  It breeds in February-June in areas with a combination of tall trees for nesting and roosting and wetlands or agricultural land for feeding. Clutch size is usually 3-4 eggs, and the incubation period is c.28 days. Young birds reach reproductive maturity at 2-4 years. In winter, the main feeding habitats are rice-fields, river banks and reservoirs, mainly close to human settlements, and it appears to tolerate human activities in these areas. In general, the species’s winters below 700 m and moves to higher elevations of up to 1,200 m during the breeding season. Current breeding sites are at 470-1,300 m, but lowland sites may be optimal, as indicated by density-independent population growth, perhaps owing to higher food availability, compared to relatively suboptimal high elevation sites. It feeds on crabs, frogs, small fish (particularly loach), river snails, other molluscs and beetles. On Sado Island, invertebrates were the most common prey, being consumed 70-90% of the time. Seasonal patterns in foraging have been documented, with paddies being important habitat in spring, early summer, autumn and winter, and levees around paddies and grasslands being important in late summer.

Two green areas shows Crested Ibis reserve NE of Chengdu in Sichuan, south central China, just east of Tibet. (BirdLife Int’l Data Zone)

Anamalia has a nice page friendly to young children. Here’s a tidbit.

Habits and Lifestyle: Crested ibises are social birds and are often seen in flocks, however, during the breeding season they become solitary and very territorial. When threatened or defending their nest from intruders ibises will flap their wings, extend their head, stretch-and-snap, and perform pursuit flight displays. These are diurnal (active during the day) birds that spend daylight hours resting, preening or walking and wading along shores searching for prey. Crested ibises are generally silent but if excited they will make a series of ‘gak-gak-gak’ calls. To communicate with each other or before taking off they will emit a low ‘gak’.

National Resources Defense Council has a brief write-up of the Ibis’ endangered status.

What Could Help Save the Endangered Crested Ibis?
Diversity, diversity, diversity.
Jason Bittel | April 13, 2017

[Chuck Almdale]

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