Bin chickens have become the ubiquitous villains of Australia's cities over many decades by snatching our sangas, tossing rubbish around like nobody's business and being generally annoying in every way.

But although Aussies are well acquainted with the white ibis in their everyday lives - Sydney alone is thought to be home to more than 7000 of them - there is a lot we still don't understand about the former swamp dwellers.

Over the years there have been various pushes from urban Australians, urging local authorities to remove "immigrant" ibises from their neighbourhoods.

The legend goes that the first ibises in Australia came from Egypt - where they were worshipped in ancient times - and escaped from a zoo.

The Australian white ibis is actually one of three ibis species that are native to this great nation, but their emergence as city slickers is a relatively recent phenomenon.

A generation ago it was rare to see ibises in Australia's cities. Now they are thriving on the endless waste we provide.

A scenario we’re all familiar with. Picture: John Grainger
A scenario we’re all familiar with. Picture: John Grainger

It is understood that they moved from the interior wetlands to the coasts of east and southeast Australia and the southwest, because of environmental degradation such as drought and habitat loss.

However, there may be an element of truth in the zoo myth and their history as former exhibits might help explain a jump to big city life.

Journalist Matthew Denby has been looking into the mysterious link and told news.com.au there is compelling evidence that a lot more was going on involving Taronga Zoo and bin chickens in the 1970s than meets the eye.

In an article for the Sydney Sentinel, he wrote that the zoo, along with others around Australia, experimented with free flight bird exhibits, and the white ibis became the most successful beneficiary.

Despite the modern hatred of the bird expressed by some, a 1973 ABC TV report on the free flight experiment, the narrator was full of praise for the species.

"They're among the most graceful and decorative of Australian birds," he said.

The report states a flock of 14 released ibises were encouraged to stay with daily meals of meat and crushed grain, and they were already breeding freely in the zoo grounds.

From around 1980 onwards, they began regularly appearing in the Botanical Gardens, the CBD and Centennial Park. From there they took over the city.

So was it the drought-affected ibises migrating from our former wetlands that took over our cities or was it the smart cookies that learned to adapt to urban life from our zoos?

Dr John Martin, research scientist with Taronga Conservation Society Australia, told the Sentinel it may have been a combination of both, with the migrants learning from the birds already living in the city.

"The most likely scenario is we have had a change at the landscape scale of the habitat in association with drought in the 1980s, and we had birds from those natural wetlands moving to the coast," Dr Martin said.

"Then you've got this interaction of arguably local (Sydney) birds and visiting birds and what do you do, you learn from each other. There's a potential that that was a formative experience but we don't know. It would be amazing to prove that."

Dr Martin's community-based research project, Big City Birds, is allowing Sydneysiders to report their observations of the ibis, as well as other surging native birds, such as the bush turkey, cockatoos and corellas.

Continue the conversation follow @bengrahamjourno on Twitter

Originally published as Big myth about Australia's most hated bird


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