The northern bald ibis is unlikely to win any avian beauty contests. Its naked crimson skull pokes out of a wild spray of black feathers, like a turkey that has been on a week-long bender. Over a curved beak, startled yellow eyes peer out at the world with a gaze of pure terror. With good reason. It has plenty to be scared about.
The ibis (geronticus eremita) was once common over the Mediterranean but today it is a critically endangered species. Sadly, its decline has taken place despite its preference for nesting in remote crevices and clifftops, far from humanity’s grasp. Its numbers have fallen due to habitat loss and overuse of pesticides (its main diet is small lizards and insects).
With its range reduced to a single enclave in Morocco, attempts began in 2003 to reintroduce the birds to Spain. Eleven years later, the hard work in the region of Cadiz has paid off. The northern bald ibis is slowly returning and, as of November 2014, there are 24 breeding pairs in the area of La Janda with a total population of 84 birds.
It’s a huge sucess in rewilding: the reintroduction of lost species of plants and animals to their previous habitats.
There’s just one problem. The northern bald ibis is a migratory bird, but the new populations don’t know the species’ ancient migration routes. They have the instinctive urge to migrate but they don’t know where to go. It’s a bit like having a favourite shop in a city but never remembering how to get there. In the back of your mind, you want to find the shop again and buy all of your favourite things, but you always get lost when you set off to find it.
A solution comes from elsewhere in Europe. Spain is not the only country to be reintroducing the northern bald ibis. In 2002, a population was established in Austria, where it is known as the Waldrapp. One of the scientists working there, Johannes Fritz, took matters into his own hands. He decided to teach his brood of ibises to migrate by showing them the way.
Piloting a paraplane, Fritz led the birds on a new migration route from Germany to a lagoon in Tuscany in Italy. Over the course of several years, he slowly built up their knowledge of the route, and now the ibises have begun to replicate the journey for themselves. It’s an extraordinary feat of imagination and ambition, and shows the dedication that European naturalists have for saving their indigenous wildlife.
The only danger now comes from hunters in Italy, who have shot several of the birds on the new migration route. Through education and prosecutions, it is hoped that the havoc wreaked by these individuals can be restrained and the population can be left to take care of itself.
If a new migration route can be developed like this in Germany and Italy, surely it can be repeated in Spain too. We can but hope that one day the northern bald ibis will live to squawk again.