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Volume 25, Number 1January/February 1974

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The Ibis of Birecik

He's rare, he's ugly, he's on the edge of extinction.

Written and photographed by Robert Arndt
Additional photographs by Udo Hirsch

The town of Birecik is a small cluster of cream and brown cubes bunched on the east bank of the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey. Upstream from Birecik, the river tumbles along a steep and rocky gorge; below the town it flows gently through a wide floodplain toward Syria. Birecik, and the old fortress it grew up around, defended the mouth of the gorge in ancient times, and the town now marks the northern limit of a natural climactic anomaly that could make it a place of pilgrimage for naturalists. Animals and plants are found there that 'belong' much further south or in much warmer climates: a river turtle that is otherwise known only in the Ganges, a white-edged bat whose habitat is usually southern Egypt.

But climate is not Birecik's only anomaly. On a narrow ledge in the 60-foot limestone cliff that arrows diagonally through the town, nests one of the world's rarest birds, a species that, in this variant, now breeds only in this one spot in all the world: Geronticus eremita, the bald ibis. Like the town itself, many of whose houses are built into and onto the buttery beige stone of the cliff, the bald ibis too has its back against the wall, and it is only the heroic efforts of a team of three young conservationists, and the backing of the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund, that give some gounds for hope that the world's last bald ibis colony will survive.

The object of so much concern and attention is a remarkably ugly bird with a proud past. Goose-sized, the bald ibis is shiny black, with a barely visible rusty patch on. the wings. It has a long, red, down-curved bill, gawky legs and an embarrassing pink and gray bald head. On the back of the head and hanging down the neck is the crest of long narrow black feathers that earns the bird its alternative name of crested ibis.

This bird was part of the stone-age fauna of a wide mountainous area of southern Europe, fossil finds show, and was recorded—and recognized as a type of ibis—by a Roman official traveling in the Alps during the first century A.D. Known by the dialect name waldrapp (woods raven) in Bavaria, Austria and the Swiss Jura, the bald ibis was one of the first—and most energetically—protected birds in Europe, since by the 16th century its nestlings had come to be a delicacy that, in theory, was reserved for the tables of the rich and powerful. Terrible-tempered Archbishop Leonhard of Salzburg published the first decree protecting the bird in 1504, and the fact that his edict was repeated almost annually thereafter shows that common people shared his taste for the squabs.

Ultimately, too many people and too few squabs led to the bald ibis' total disappearance in its European range. Within the course of a single century, the bird was so well forgotten that naturalists of the 18th century believed it to have been as mythical as the came leopard. They argued that earlier naturalists like Switzerland's Konrad von Gesner, who had published a drawing and description of the bald ibis in 1555, had been either hoaxers, or hoaxed themselves.

Thus when a wandering ornithologist discovered a huge colony of bald black-crested birds in Syria in 1854, they were treated as an entirely new species, and it was not until after 1906 that this bird was finally accepted as being the same species as Gesner's waldrapp and the Roman prefect's "local ibis species." In the meantime, the Birecik colony had been discovered in passing by an English ornithologist in 1879, and though he was unable to count the birds, there must have been at least as many as in 1953, when an accurate count showed 1,300 birds—perhaps 500 brooding pairs.

The bald ibis never reached such numbers again. By the time the Birecik colony had been discovered, the Syrian ones had been destroyed—perhaps intentionally—and Birecik's own ibis population was declining dangerously, thanks in part to the introduction of crop-protection pesticides into the area. In 1967, only 50 ibis pairs nested; in 1970, 36 pairs; and in 1972, only 26 pairs, and the total population of the colony had declined to some 60 birds. It was at this point that Turkey's well-known bird painter Salih Acar, his conservationist wife Belkis, and Udo Hirsch, a young German ethnologist and wildlife photographer, learned how close these rare birds were to extinction, and moved to protect them.

They moved on several fronts at once, alerting friends and scientific acquaintances in foreign countries, making a preliminary report to the World Wildlife Fund and to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, compiler of the Red Data Books of endangered species, and—most important—establishing Udo in Birecik, in a house within sight of the ibis' brooding ledge, to undertake two parallel lines of research. Should the conservationists' efforts to save the bald ibis as a free-living species fail, Udo's observations would provide the only available behavioral data on the bird in the wild, data which—valuable enough in itself—might, if worst came to worst, permit the preservation of Geronticus eremita in a zoo until, someday, it could be reestablished in the wild.

The other object of Udo's research was to determine what it was that was killing off the bald ibis, and what efforts might help to save it. His first conclusions assigned the blame to two probable causes: pesticides causing inefficient and non-adaptive nesting and mating behavior, and the configuration of the narrow nesting ledge itself.

"Generations ago," Udo pointed out, "the bald ibis built good deep nests—we know that because its eggs are very round, not oval, and roll easily. Today, the ibis nests in Birecik are nests only by courtesy—they're flat bunches of twigs, plastic-bag scraps and grass, and one good kick by a startled adult bird can easily throw an egg out of the nest and right off the ledge. The same is true of nestlings: as they squabble for food the smallest are often bullied out of the nest and fall 40 feet. They're either dead instantly or a cat finds them later. And Birecik's children throw rocks at the birds for fun, so a lot of eggs and chicks are lost in the uproar that causes in the colony." Udo clawed his red beard and flipped through a journal. "Last year, of all the eggs laid in the colony, 86 percent were smashed, or the chicks were killed before they were fully feathered. There's no species that can stand up to losses like that—20 to 30 percent would be a normal rate."

With the Acars, and with the WWF's financial help, Udo planned his intervention. Since the birds were too unadaptable to move them to a safer nesting site, the group decided to make the present site safe. In Birecik, they hired stonemasons and scaffold builders, and increased the depth of the ledge 50 to 150 percent over most of its 200-foot length, then added a wooden platform to widen a section where stone-cutting was impossible. The work was finished just as the ibis returned in March from their winter quarters. To greet them the town of Birecik revived an ancient custom and celebrated their return with an all-day festival.

Widening the ledge proved a success: the 26 pairs of ibis that nested were undisturbed by the alterations, and during the brooding season's first half, smashed eggs came to less than 20 percent of the number laid. With cooperation from a large pesticide producer who offered to make a substitute crop spray for the Birecik area that would be less harmful to the bald ibis, it seemed that the chances of the birds' survival had jumped from 50 to 1—the Acars' original estimate—to 50/50.

At the same time, Udo Hirsch's photographs and Salih Acar's magisterial public relations talents had made the bald ibis the subject of numberless Turkish newspaper and magazine articles and of a quarter-hour report on Turkish television. So well known had the bird become that television quizmasters made jokes about it, and long distance telephone operators across the country recognized the name of Birecik.

Unfortunately, the Bireciklis themselves, whose help is most essential if their bald ibis colony is to survive, now pose the greatest threat to the birds. The rooftops of some of Birecik's cliffside houses now reach to within five feet of the birds' nesting ledge, and the human and bird worlds intersect only with some friction. "Flapping laundry scares the birds," cites Belkis Acar, "and the birds leave droppings on the laundry. Then, people sleep on the roofs in summer, and the birds' noise and mess makes that unpleasant. The higher housetops interfere with the ibis' flight patterns, too." As a result, Udo's and the Acars' exertions have not been able to convince the Bireciklis to protect the bird and tolerate it: three quarters of the 1973 egg and chick losses were due directly to human interference.

"This is how it goes," Salih Acar said a little wearily. "Nature conservation comes down to a question of people. We know how we can probably save the bird. World Wildlife gave us the money we need for the first steps, and they've promised help in finding the $200,000 more that will finish the job. We have the cooperation of the National Parks Department of Turkey—though not of some of the other arms of the government. But unless we get the help of Birecik's human population, the bald ibis will be extinct within three years."

Salih Acar is right, and there is no telling whether he and Belkis and Udo Hirsch can win the Bireciklis' help and cooperation in time to save this unique, ugly, stubborn bird from extinction. But the hope exists, and the effort is being made, and perhaps—only perhaps—the tale of the Birecik bald ibis will turn out to be one of conservation's rare success stories.

Robert Arndt, who free-lances from Istanbul, has followed the fate of the bald ibis for two years.

This article appeared on pages 27-28 of the January/February 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1974 images.