IBIS, one of the sacred birds of the ancient Egyptians. James Bruce identified this bird with the Abu-Hannes or “Father John” of the Abyssinians, and in 1790 it received from Latham (Index ornithologicus, p. 706) the name of Tantalus aethiopicus. This determination was placed beyond question by Cuvier (Ann. du Muséum, iv. 116-135) and Savigny (Hist. nat. et mythol. de l’ibis) in 1805. They, however, removed it from the Linnaean genus Tantalus and, Lacépède having some years before founded a genus Ibis, it was transferred thither, and is now generally known as I. aethiopica, though some speak of it as I. religiosa. No attempt can here be made to treat the ibis from a mythological or antiquarian point of view. Savigny’s memoir contains a great deal of matter on the subject. Wilkinson (Ancient Egyptians, ser. 2, vol. ii. pp. 217-224) added some of the results of later research, and Renouf in his Hibbert Lectures explains the origin of the myth.

The ibis is chiefly an inhabitant of the Nile basin from Dongola southward, as well as of Kordofan and Sennar; whence about midsummer it moves northwards to Egypt.[1] In Lower Egypt it bears the name of Abu-mengel, or “father of the sickle,” from the form of its bill, but it does not stay long in that country, disappearing when the Nile has subsided. Hence most travellers have failed to meet with it there[2] (since their acquaintance with the birds of Egypt is limited to those which frequent the country in winter), and writers have denied generally to this species a place in its modern fauna (cf. Shelley, Birds of Egypt, p. 261). However, in 1864, von Heuglin (Journ. für Ornithologie, 1865, p. 100) saw a young bird which had been shot in the Delta, and E. C. Taylor (Ibis, 1878, p. 372) saw an adult which had been killed near Lake Menzal in 1877. The story told to Herodotus of its destroying snakes is, according to Savigny, devoid of truth, but Cuvier states that he discovered partly digested remains of a snake in the stomach of a mummied ibis.

The ibis is somewhat larger than a curlew, Numenius arquata, which bird it resembles, with a much stouter bill and stouter legs. The head and greater part of the neck are bare and black. The plumage is white, except the primaries, which are black, and a black plume, formed by the secondaries, tertials and lower scapulars, and richly glossed with bronze, blue and green, which curves gracefully over the hind-quarters. The bill and feet are also black. The young lack the ornamental plume, and in them the head and neck are clothed with short black feathers, while the bill is yellow. The nest is placed in bushes or high trees, the bird generally building in companies, and in the middle of August von Heuglin (Orn. Nord-Ost-Afrikas, p. 1138) found that it had from two to four young or much incubated eggs.[3] These are of a dingy white, splashed, spotted and speckled with reddish-brown.

Congeneric with the typical ibis are two or three other species, the I. melanocephala of India, the I. molucca or I. strictipennis, of Australia, and the I. bernieri of Madagascar, all of which closely resemble I. aethiopica; while many other forms not very far removed from it, though placed by authors in distinct genera,[4] are known. Among these are several beautiful species such as the Japanese Geronticus nippon, the Lophotibis cristata of Madagascar, and the scarlet ibis,[5] Eudocimus ruber, of America. The glossy ibis, Plegadis falcinellus, found throughout the West Indies, Central and the south-eastern part of North America, as well as in many parts of Europe (whence it not unfrequently strays to the British Islands), Africa, Asia and Australia. This bird, believed to be the second kind of ibis spoken of by Herodotus, is rather smaller than the sacred ibis, and mostly of a dark chestnut colour with brilliant green and purple reflections on the upper parts, exhibiting, however, when young none of the rufous hue. This species lays eggs of a deep sea-green colour, having wholly the character of heron’s eggs, and it often breeds in company with herons, while the eggs of all other ibises whose eggs are known resemble those of the sacred ibis. Though ibises resemble the curlews externally, there is no affinity between them. The Ibididae are more nearly related to the storks, Ciconiidae, and still more to the spoonbills, Plataleidae, with which latter many systematists consider them to form one group, the Hemiglottides of Nitzsch. Together these groups form the sub-order Ciconiae of the order Ciconiiformes. The true ibises are also to be clearly separated from the wood-ibises, Tantalidae, of which there are four or five species, by several not unimportant structural characters. Fossil remains of a true ibis, I. pagana, have been found in considerable numbers in the middle Tertiary beds of France.[6] (A. N.) 

  1. It has been said to occur occasionally in Europe (Greece and southern Russia).
  2. E. C. Taylor remarked (Ibis, 1859, p. 51), that the buff-backed heron, Ardea bubulcus, was made by the tourists’ dragomans to do duty for the “sacred ibis,” and this seems to be no novel practice, since by it, or something like it, Hasselqvist was misled, and through him Linnaeus.
  3. The ibis has more than once nested in the gardens of the Zoological Society in London, and even reared its young there.
  4. For some account of these may be consulted Dr Reichenow’s paper in Journ. für Ornithologie (1877), pp. 143-156; Elliot’s in Proc. Zool. Society (1877), pp. 477-510; and that of Oustalet in Nouv. Arch. du Muséum, ser. 2, vols. i. pp. 167-184.
  5. It is a popular error—especially among painters—that this bird was the sacred ibis of the Egyptians.
  6. The name “Ibis” was selected as the title of an ornithological magazine, frequently referred to in this and other articles, which made its first appearance in 1859.