16 March 2007

Zenobia's Triumphant Return to Palmyra (Updated)

Zenobia the ibis, that is.

(or, not to put too fine a point on it, the northern bald ibis: © RSPB images).

The rarest birds in the Middle East have just returned to their breeding grounds near Palmyra. Their migration route took them across seven countries, flying more than 3,800 miles to spend the winter in the Ethiopian highlands.

Zenobia's re-appearance in Palmyra (with Sultan and Salam on her tail), has been heralded as a success for the project that began when scientists tagged the three adult birds last summer.

The Palmyran colony was only discovered in 2002 and its numbers have never risen above 13. They are thought to be the last of a Middle Eastern population that formerly numbered several thousand; and the bird is now classified as critically endangered – the highest level of threat there is. The northern bald ibis, Geronticus eremita, is a large bird with black plumage that flashes irridescent purple and green when the light strikes it, with a bald red face, red bill and legs and a strange crest of long feathers on the back of its head, which makes it look as though it is wearing a feather wig. It is usually silent but hisses and grunts (like an angry queen) when at its nest and in display.

Little was known of the birds’ migration before the tracking project began. I've been following the trio on my website (click on Links: Zenobia the ibis) since last July, when they took off for their winter grounds. On the outward journey, the tagged birds unexpectedly spent over three weeks in Yemen. Just when the bird-watchers began to think they might stay there, they shot across the Red Sea to central Ethiopia.

But it was their return route that most surprised the scientists. They flew west rather than east of the Red Sea, crossing from Sudan to Saudi Arabia at the Sea’s widest point of 180 miles. ‘Our hearts were in our mouths,' said a research biologist, 'because they set out to sea quite late in the morning and were still far offshore when night fell.'

Researchers plotted each stop-over and the length and time of each leg and, if you enable Javascript, you can follow their migration online

The bald ibis was revered in ancient Egypt. Regarded as the reincarnation of Thoth, scribe of the gods, the 'crested ibis' or 'crested akh-bird' (not to be confused with the Egyptian 'sacred ibis' which was a different species) was sacred to the god, who was pictured as an ibis-headed man.

This image of Thoth is a carved and painted relief in a room near the sanctuary of the Temple of Karnak, erected by Queen Hatshepsut in the 18th Dynasty. Thoth is pouring a libation over the (now erased) figure of Hatshepsut. There is a cartouche of Hatshepsut above Thoth, but the name too has been partly erased. This damage was done in the reign of her nephew, Thutmose III, who ruled after Hatshepsut and who had been joint pharaoh with her during her lifetime.

[My thanks to Robert Partridge: The Ancient Egypt Picture Library, and editor of the magazine Ancient Egypt for this extraordinary image of Thoth.]

I shall not be side-tracked by Hatshepsut

... even though, after Cleopatra, she is probably the best known female ruler of Egypt. She ruled for about twenty years — first as regent for, then as co-ruler with her nephew, Thutmose III (ca. 1479–1458 BC). She had herself crowned Pharaoh in 1473 BC, thus becoming the first and only female king of Egypt.

No one knows if she was murdered or died of old age but, after her death, her monuments were obliterated and she was erased (quite literally) from history. In Zenobia's time (I mean Queen Zenobia, not the ibis), all memory of Hatshepsut had been lost. And the female Pharaoh would remain lost until modern Egyptologists reconstructed her damaged inscriptions and restored her to her rightful dynastic place.

With the best will in the world, I cannot bring her into the story of Zenobia, either queen or ibis.

Update: Some splendid photographs of Northern Bald Ibises were taken by Gianluca Serra of the Palmyra Project (UN FAO) in the Talila nature reserve, the first functional protected area in Syria. The reserve was not just set aside for Zenobia and Team Ibis, of course, but the many wild animals that were either hunted to extinction in Syria (such as the Arabian oryx, now reintroduced) or endangered (the Arabian deer, Maha). More information on the reserve, which can now be visited with guides, on ecotourism syria, an enthusiastic new site -- even if I doubt the "lions and tigers" that they claim for Syria's wildlife. Although there were lions living along the banks of the Euphrates in Queen Zenobia's time, they are certainly long extinct; tigers, as far as I know, never roamed Syria in historical times (but I would be happy to be proven wrong).

(left) Cagan Sekercioglu
A tagged Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita
© 2008 BirdLife International. Working together for birds and people

Syria’s tiny population of Northern Bald Ibises is doing well at its protected breeding site, but the young birds are not returning to the colony.

2007 ...the freshly fledged chicks separate early from parents during the first migration. In fact the survey confirmed that only the four adults wintered on the Ethiopian highlands. There was no trace of the other nine birds, six freshly fledged chicks and three subadults. “We realised that we had scratched just the surface of the mystery of the migration of these birds: where have the younger birds gone? We have good reasons to believe that they have not died out, and they have probably gone to winter in a different location and country -Yemen, perhaps?

Update 28 September 2008 : Breeding failure prompts captive breeding proposal for Syria’s Northern Bald ibis

A workshop on conservation of the Critically Endangered Northern bald ibis concluded that the Palmyra birds should be supplemented with juveniles taken from the expanding semi-wild population at Birecik, Turkey. Chris Bowden of the
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds explained that captive breeding was a last resort, as there is no guarantee of success following a total breeding failure at the colony in the past year. 'If fewer than two pairs attempt to breed next year, we will hit the emergency button. The Birecik birds are genetically similar, and so they are the obvious source for supplementation."

Read the rest of the story at Wildlife Extra.

(Right: photo by J. Crisali)


  1. Anonymous23/7/08 02:10

    Thanks for this inspiring story of the potential resurgence of a captivationg bird, which I have never heard of! Thanks for the vivid photograph, too. The description of its migration route was just as fascinating. I hope all the local people who hear of the bird will cheer for its comeback, and not have more selfish designs on the animal.
    Des Keyes

  2. Anonymous6/9/10 06:49

    I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore, and I hold within my hand grains of the golden sand-- How few! yet how they creep through my fingers to the deep, while I weep-- While I weep!


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