Sorry Ibis Haters, The Beautiful Trash Birds Aren’t Going Anywhere

The reports of ibis population decline are greatly exaggerated.


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This morning, bin chicken opponents rejoiced in response to a Brisbane Times article claiming that ibis numbers in Brisbane are mysteriously on the decline. As a committed pro-ibis journalist, I am compelled to inform you that this claim is, much like prime ibis habitat, garbage.

The original article based its claim on ibis numbers for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years provided by Brisbane City Council. And yes, comparing the figures for these two years does show a drop in ibis numbers — from 4712 to 3228 birds.

Unfortunately, in their haste to celebrate the decline of the so-called trash turkey, someone forgot to do their due diligence. Two data points do not make a trend, and given that ibis are winged and highly mobile in addition to being majestic, it’s pretty well known amongst fans that population counts tend to fluctuate wildly. See for example the NSW figures on ibis counts, which fluctuate wildly from year to year.

In fact, when we contacted the one expert quoted in the Brisbane Times article, Professor Darryl Jones from Griffith University, he hadn’t yet seen the final article, and was shocked to see the headline: ‘Almost a third of Brisbane’s ibises have gone and we don’t know why’.

“I would not even slightly hesitate in saying that it’s not a drop to worry about,” Professor Jones told Junkee. “Ibis populations are massively variable all of the time — this is an animal that can move up to hundreds of kilometres in a couple of days for reasons we don’t really understand. There’s a stable population of urban ibis who are basically just city dwellers, but then there’s a much bigger population of very transient birds who move around a lot.”

“This is probably a good example of how not to jump to a conclusion based on two data points on a graph,” he said.

So what does the rest of the data say? Turns out, that’s the real mystery here. When we reached out to Brisbane City Council, they confirmed the 2015-16 and 2016-17 counts, but told us “the numbers of ibis populations recorded by Council in previous years are not readily available.”

In fact, as someone heavily invested in studying ibis, Professor Jones wasn’t even sure where the Council’s more recent data comes from. “My research group is kind of stunned that this ibis data exists,” he said. “The source of this information would be really interesting to find out — to see who got it and how they got it, and what their methodology was?”

“We’re in the dark as much as you are.”

Anyway, the conclusion here is to NOT PANIC, everybody, because there’s no evidence ibis are actually in any mysterious decline. And before you groan, Professor Jones also flagged some forthcoming research by an honours student at Griffith, which apparently finds that around 70 percent of ibis interactions in Brisbane are considered “positive” by the humans involved — particularly by tourists, who love a good ibis selfie. Maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning, and Australians are finally ready to embrace ibis with open arms and hearts.

Long live the bin chicken. May rigorous and reliable data never show its consistent decline.