Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis  (Plegadis falcinellus)

Featured on the 2016 Road Race T-Shirt

By Craig Wood

Each year NRPA features a local bird species for the Narrow River Road Race T-Shirt, and this year it’s the Glossy Ibis. While the Glossy Ibis does not nest along the Narrow River, it is a relatively common sight in the summer foraging in small flocks within salt marshes for insects, mollusks and crustaceans. Its diet typically does not include fish.

The Glossy Ibis is a medium-sized wading bird, standing up to 26 inches in height. It is easily distinguished from other local wading birds (herons and egrets) by their dark appearance and long, down-curved bill.  Unlike herons and egrets which fly with their necks retracted, the ibis flies with its neck stretched out. Touch sensors on the down-curved bill allow the ibis to rapidly snap it closed as it probes the substrate when it encounters prey, while ridges along the bill help to securely grasp it in place. The scientific name, Plegadis falcinellus, is derived from the Latin word Falx, meaning sickle, referring to the bird’s distinctive bill.

While they appear dark at a distance, adult birds are chestnut colored with an iridescent purple gloss on the head, neck, and underside. During the breeding season, bare facial skin becomes a cobalt blue trimmed with a thin band of white.  Immature birds are similar to adult, but with a dark banded bill, duller body and a neck covered with light streaks.

The most widespread of all ibis species, the Glossy Ibis is found in North, South and Central America, as well as Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Glossy Ibis are originally from Africa and immigrated to the South American continent in the nineteenth century. In North America, the Glossy Ibis nests in a narrow band along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The species is migratory and nomadic, those found in Rhode Island may wander widely before migrating southwards to wintering grounds.

Glossy Ibis nest in small mixed colonies with other wading birds, such as Great Egrets and Black-Crowned Night Herons, on predator-free islands in Narragansett Bay. Both the male and female help to construct the nest, built of sticks and twigs in trees or shrubs up to 10 feet from the ground. Both parents incubate the eggs (typically 3-4), the female usually attends the nest at night and the male during the day.

First spotted in Rhode Island in the 1930s, the first recorded nesting in this state was in 1971. This species can display great volatility in the number of nesting pairs, with a Rhode Island population peaking at 500 nesting pairs in 1991, and then declined slowly to 135 pairs in 2013. According to RIDEM biologist Chris Raithel, there were about 200 nesting pairs of Glossy Ibis in Rhode Island last summer. Nationwide, the species is considered a low conservation concern and continues to expand its range. However, due to their small population size in Rhode Island, this species is a local conservation concern.

Many thanks to Johann Schumacher for use of the beautiful photo of the Ibis in flight.


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