Thoth was one of the most important gods of the ancient Egyptians.
According to historians, Thoth's Egyptian name originated from the oldest known name for the Ibis. His name means "He who is like the Ibis." Sacred Ibis (Sw.Kwarara mweupe) fly over my house every evening about 6 p.m. in V-formation; they are moving from their daytime feeding grounds to their nighttime roosts.
As I watch them, a picture in black and white, neck stretched forward, flapping their wings with even strokes, I wonder what made the Egyptians think they had the attributes of a god. I do not understand how Sacred Ibis embody the attributes of the master of both physical and moral law.
How does the Sacred Ibis embody the attributes of the inventor of all sciences; the true author of every work on every branch of knowledge, human or divine; the one who directs the motions of the planets and the stars; who judges the dead?
Maybe because they seem calm? Or because of interpretations inspired by their sharp black and white pattern? Or the long black beak with which they probe in the mud? Or because they are helpful?
They eat a wide variety of food. These birds will scavenge at rubbish dumps, sewage treatment ponds, and tidal flats. They also feed on small animals, vertebrates, and invertebrates. Because they eat snails, it has been suggested that when the Ibis were still living in Egypt, people were not afflicted with schistosomiasis (which depends on a snail host), as they are these days.
Ibis were also believed to protect Egypt from snakes.
This bird, which was so important in ancient Egyptian culture, became extinct in Egypt more than 100 years ago. So when I was asked to try to save the life of a Sacred Ibis, I was happy to try. He or she was brought in a big kikapu (straw basket). He couldn’t stand, but he could sit and hold his head erect.
This Ibis had been poisoned as a result of an eradication campaign against the alien invasive Indian House Crow (Kunguru kaya). An alert worker had seen him eating the dagaa (small fish) laced with poison which was aimed at the crows. Supposedly he ate just one.
The poison is called Starlicide or Carbofurdan. It is known that it can kill other birds such as Sacred Ibis and Cattle Egrets. The poison is bated with dagaa, which many bird species find delicious, and put in places such as garbage dumps where crows are plentiful. The poison works through the kidneys. The animals become very weak and die without much pain.
I had never seen a Sacred Ibis close up. Except for their feathered torso and wings which are bright white with black trim, the birds are ebony, from the naked dry skin of their head, neck and ear holes, eyes, long heavy slightly curved bill to the ostrich-like tail feathers to the legs and feet with their long strong toes.
By afternoon he was able to walk on his knees. He spent most of his time hidden underneath a bush. We gave him a bowl of water into which we periodically put a couple of 8 cm tilapia. He quickly learned to take tilapia. If a fish fell on the ground or somehow got dirty, before eating it, the bird dipped the fish into the water to wash away the grit.
During the day he stayed outside, but for several nights, for fear of predators such as genets and neighbors’ dogs or cats, we picked him up and carried him to the bathroom. He didn’t fight or act ill-mannered, but the bird was a full arm load.
For a few days he walked and rested on his knees. Then he gained enough strength to stand upright and walk. A few days later he climbed to the top of a tree. The wind blowing the tree branch rocked him back and forth. He would come down to look for food. As the tilapia became fewer, he began moving from place to place, probing the mulch piles under each tree with his beak. He found toads and other amphibians.
He continued with that behavior for several days, and then one day he climbed to the top of a tall tree … and flew away. He who embodies the attributes of the great god Thoth returned to the land of the living.
by Anne H. Outwater PhD, RN,
World Learning Advancing Leaders Fellow
Anne Outwater has lived and traveled widely in Tanzania since 1989. She is head of the Department of Community Health Nursing at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. Her garden in Dar es Salaam is a pocket nature reserve certified by the National Wildlife Federation. She has been writing Nature Notes since 1990, and many of them emerge from the nature reserve.