White ibis stop foraging in bins and switch their diet to earthworms following torrential rains

White ibis stop foraging in bins and switch their diet to earthworms following torrential rains



The Australian white ibis have been pushed away from our trash and into Sydney’s flooded parklands by recent storms.

The much-maligned ibis, sometimes known as the “bin chicken,” “tip turkey,” “lunch snatcher,” or “picnic pirate,” is currently congregating in large numbers in parks across Sydney, foraging for food and looking for a mate, according to bird expert Dr Gráinne Cleary.

She explained, “It’s the season of food and love.”

“We usually see them around bins, but with the rain, they’ll change their diet and start foraging as they would in the marshes.”

When it rains, earthworms rise to the surface, and ibis come to the pasture in search of protein.

Outside Sydney, the rural ibis use their long beaks to forage in and around wetlands, freshwater swamps and mudflats for food. They have diverse diets but prefer freshwater crayfish, crickets frogs and fish.

But their urban counterparts supplement their diets with food from the bin – hence their infamous moniker.

Cleary said they would be loving the feast the wet weather has brought with it.

Ibis search for a free feed in the sodden grass. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Ibis search for a free feed in the sodden grass. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
The wet weather is likely to boost population numbers. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
The wet weather is likely to boost population numbers. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“The worms are really good food. This is a lot more natural than McDonald’s,” she said.

“They’re responding how they would more naturally, it goes to show how adaptable they are.”

Cleary said the birds may appear cleaner, as their diet is better and they wash in the rainwater.

Ibis have diverse diets.

‘Communal birds’: ibis gather in Sydney parkland. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
‘Communal birds’: ibis gather in Sydney parkland. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The wetter Sydney weather would also be inspiring some to “get romantic”, she said.

“There’s a lot of food, there’s a bit of shagging going on as well. We’ll see the numbers increase.”

It won’t last long though, numbers will naturally decline when Sydney’s warm weather begins, with the bin chicken likely returning to its rubbish diet.

“They’re very communal birds so they are coming together now, there are great conversations, they’re enjoying the rain and they’re gathering as they would have done,” she said.

“When the rain ends and it dries up, those ibises will go back to foraging on human food.”

Dr John Martin, a research scientist based at the Taronga Institute of Science and Learning, has been running an app where Sydney residents can document the location and behaviour of the ibis, so his team can learn how the population is adapting to its urban setting.

He said it is not uncommon for them to change their diet.

“They do it every time it rains. I often see them in the Domain [in Sydney’s CBD] and I think, they are all white – they look like sheep in a big paddock. They’re foraging for worms and beetle larvae. It’s natural behaviour.”

While they enjoy the protein, their diets are actually quite balanced, Martin said.

The population has adapted to an urban setting. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
The population has adapted to an urban setting. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Foraging and scavenging leads to a balanced diet. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Foraging and scavenging leads to a balanced diet. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“They’ve adapted and moved to the city and are happily getting a free feed from our leftovers,” he said.

“We haven’t seen that it has a negative impact on their health. This is one of the reasons they forage naturally, as well as scavenge for food.

“This helps them have a more balanced diet than we expect.”

This article by Cait Kelly was first published by The Guardian on 31 March 2022. Lead Image: As rain falls, earthworms move to the surface and Sydney’s ibises are flocking away from the bins to find the protein in the city’s parks. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian.


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