20 March 2011

Zenobia's Triumphant Return to Palmyra (Latest News)

Zenobia the ibis, that is.

Further updated in March 2012 (see below)

A miffed-looking Zenobia (left), self-appointed queen of Palmyra's Northern Bald Ibises, after being tagged in 2006, shortly before taking off for her annual winter migration to Ethiopia.  

Since then, she's been recorded as returning to her Palmyra breeding grounds each year in March.  And now, just days ago, right on time, she flew back again, the first of her tiny flock to come home -- exactly as you'd expect of an uppity queen-bird.

The ibis' annual migration route takes them across seven countries, flying more than 5,000 km [3,800 miles], to spend the winter in the Ethiopian highlands.

For those who haven't been following the story on my blog since 2007, here's the scoop: 

The Palmyran ibis 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.

Gianluca Serra, undoubtedly the top specialist on the northern bald ibis, representing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has just updated us on the latest desperate efforts to forge a stable population of these red-list endangered birds, now one of the rarest birds in the world.* 

Syria’s tiny population of ibises was doing well at its protected breeding site, but the young birds were not returning to the colony after their migration. The Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society determined that there was no short-term threat at the wintering grounds in Ethiopia.  The problem for the ibis, it seems -- and for a number of soaring birds which use the African-Eurasian flyway – is what kills them off during migration:

Hundreds and thousands of migratory birds, including many that are protected under international wildlife treaties are destroyed by man-made barriers such as power lines, tall buildings, wind turbines and communication masts. Using satellite tracking and, with National Geographic support, IUCN has recently identified the two most likely severe causes of the huge mortality of immature ibises along western Arabia: hunting and electrocution by electric cables.
This discovery has important and general conservation implications, as the ibis migratory route along western Arabia is a major flyway used by other threatened long-range migratory birds as well.

Nice as it is to know what is killing them, it may already be too late to save the northern bald ibis.  The Syrian birds have raised 24 young since 2002 but breeding totally failed in 2008 and, by 2009, the bird was just short of extinction: the seven adults discovered in 2002 had dwindled to three individuals, plus one juvenile reared that year.

Last throw of the dice for Zenobia's brood

In summer 2010, scientists managed to carry out a test at the breeding grounds in Palmyra, the first of its kind.

Semi-captive Turkish Northern bald ibis from Birecik
In a deal symbolically negotiated by the Syrian and Turkish first ladies (Mrs Asma al-Assad and Mrs Hayrünnisa Gül), it was decided that the Palmyra birds should be supplemented with juveniles taken from the expanding semi-wild population at Birecik in Turkey, belonging to the same genetic stock.  The Turkish ibises are free-flying for five months, breeding on natural nest sites and nest-boxes on cliffs, but are taken into captivity after the breeding season to prevent them from migrating.

The gift that keeps on giving: six little birds

The Turkish Government donated six juvenile ibises from the Birecik population in the hope that they can prevent the extinction of the wild Syrian birds.  Two of these have been fitted with satellite transmitters and have been carefully introduced to the wild birds in the hope they will follow them and, ultimately, join the adults on their migration and become part of the colony.  On the face of it, it seems straightforward to do, but the birds are socially particularly complex, and there are always risks of disease.

Two chicks born in captivity in Turkey were slowly introduced into the wild colony in Palmyra. The remaining four Turkish birds will be kept in aviaries for breeding to bolster the colony's numbers by releasing their offspring in future years.

An amazing video (below) by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds/BirdLife shows the getting-to-know-you process between the three Syrian birds (Zenobia, Odeinat, and Salama) and the two Turkish juveniles (Ishtar and Amina) as well as remarkable scenes of a bird's life in the Syrian desert.  When the juveniles are finally released, you see them joining the adults foraging for food. 

Northern bald ibis release in Syria from The RSPB on Vimeo.

Astonishingly, on release, the two youngsters followed one of the wild adults for almost 1,500 km [950 miles] along the migratory route up to southern Saudi Arabia.  But, in Saudi, their trail went cold.  According to the RSPB, "We've already found out that the adult ibises travel to Ethiopia for the winter, but we're not totally sure where the youngsters go." 

The adults were followed this year all the way to Ethiopia -- where Salama was discovered hobnobbing with two unknown ibises (perhaps Syrian juveniles from 2007 that never returned to the breeding grounds; presumed dead, but truly, no one knows what teenage ibises get up to!).  The good news is that, as of last week, Zenobia, Odenait, and Salama have returned to their breeding grounds near Palmyra, each by separate routes (confirmed by the RSPB blog that has been tracking them via satellite transmitters since they left Syria) ... but there is still no sign of the little Turks.

Are they alive? Will they make it back to Palmyra?  Fingers crossed that they appear quite soon and boost the breeding population!

Latest News 2012 Below

* Barbara Moffet of the National Geographic Society interviews Gianluca Serra, in 'New Hope for a Rare Bird in the Syrian Desert' at NATGEO News Watch.

For more information, see the RSPB Community webpage on the Northern bald ibis (updated regularly), and the BirdLife International website.


Top left: Female Zenobia during satellite tagging at Palmyra in 2006. Photo courtesy of G. Serra (via NATGEO News Watch).

Middle left: Close-up Northern bald ibix.  Photo by J. Crisali (via Zenobia: Empress of the East).

Lower left: Turkish juvenile ibis.  Photo by
Andy Hultberg; www.rarebirdsyearbook.com (via BirdLife International)

Update 7 March 2012

Three Birds Back

This year again, Zenobia, Odenait, and Salama have returned safely from their long migration.  RSPB reports (2 March 2012):
We've just heard from the team in Syria that all three adults....are safely back from migration on the Syrian breeding grounds today! This is particularly pleasing since Salama had not transmitted since late last year, but this now seems to simply be tag failure rather than anything worse. Still no sign of the other two untagged birds that were seen on the Ethiopian wintering grounds, so where those birds go is becoming a source of speculation. Or perhaps they will appear at Palmyra one of these days?
Salama is the lone adult female whose partner never returned from the 2010 migration.

An unpaired adult Turkish male from the aviary was introduced to her last year in the hope he might adapt to the conditions and breed with her:

The release aviary was put in place and he and Salama did show a lot of interest in one another, even offering twigs (nest material) to each other through the wire. So it was agreed to let the male go. Unfortunately, he spent just an hour with the wild birds after release before they flew off together, but he then disappeared during a sandstorm, and no longer stayed with Salama or the others.
He was eventually recaptured and put back in the aviary.  Salama remains mate-less and now migrates on her own. 

Juvenile Deliquents

The two untagged juveniles that fledged in 2011 have not been seen, but where youngsters go to after they fledge remains a mystery as they have never been observed with the adults in Ethiopia.  Both seemed healthy when they left on their migration last year. The two other juveniles that were taken from the semi-captive tagged Turkish birds set out from Syria, but both disappeared some time ago and their fate is unknown.

As of now, that leaves just one single breeding pair in their old stamping grounds near Palmyra.  Come on, kids, come home!


Illustration ibis chick and egg: Photo Credit: International Advisory Group for the Northern Bald Ibis



  1. Hi Judith
    Just wanted to tell you about our blog on northern bald ibis at http://northernbaldibis.blogspot.com there are some posts on archeology too

  2. BTW, do you know any mosaic or relief showing Northern Bald ibis in Palmyra or any other Nabatean, or other middle East culture?
    It would be very nice if yo can write anything about that in the style of our posts on ancien Egypt http://northernbaldibis.blogspot.com.es/search/label/Egypt.



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