Pharaohs and birders

July 13, 2017

The African sacred ibis revered, by Rex Allen Graham of Top Birding Tours



The African Sacred Ibis meant more to ancient Egypt than the Bald Eagle means to the U.S., the Red-crowned Crane to China and the Canada Goose to Canada.

The Sacred Ibis was literally sacred. Reverence toward it was most promoted by Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis (570-526 BC) and the birds were fed so well for centuries in sanctuaries that a race of them stopped migrating. Amasis decreed the death penalty for any Egyptian who mistreated the birds. Over 1 million ibis were mummified and stacked in funeral containers in a vast underground cemetery complex. 


 African Sacred Ibis statue in the Copenhagen Museum


Egyptian Sacred Ibis Art


Ibis species still hold a special place in the psyche of most Africans. The Giant Ibis is the national bird of Cambodia, and the Scarlet Ibis is one of two national birds of Trinidad and Tobago. Worldwide, there currently are 28 species of ibis, a genus of large, beautiful wading birds with downward curving bills.


Ironically, the African Sacred Ibis has vanished from Egypt. Its likeness is found on oil lamps, pottery, coins, statues and many other ornaments on display in museums from Cairo and Cape Town to Copenhagen and Tokyo.


Archaeologists surveying the ancient cemetery and tomb monuments at Tuna el-Gebel, Egypt, discovered over 1 million mummified ibises and many thousands of other birds and animals in underground tunnels and galleries.


African Sacred Ibis Range


 African Sacred Ibis range. (Wilhelm Klave)


Today the African sacred ibis is a commonly seen nomadic waterbird widely distributed south of Egypt. It usually breeds during rainy seasons in communal nesting trees with other waterbirds near lakes, wetlands, grasslands, lagoons and other wet areas of sub-Saharan Africa to South Africa. Loss of wetlands (and hunting in some places) is the main threat.


Almost any popular African birding or wildlife tour will yield views of this strikingly attractive, long-legged species with a royal past.A two-part vacation tour to see Egypt and a more bird-rich African country such as Tanzania to the south would be ideal for any ibis lover. I believe that the more we watch, photograph, study and enjoy African Sacred Ibises, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.


See: Top Birding Tours for expert help on arranging a birding trip.

And see: African birds




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