I pulled back the blinds one morning last weekend and instantly felt that kind of ‘wow’ kids feel when they wake up in the morning and catch their first sight of an overnight winter snowfall. But instead of a blanket of white snow, I saw a preserve dotted in white—a patchwork quilt of white ibis, palms, and cypress trees. And for every white ibis I could see, there was a brown ibis blending in with the debris and dark waters on the cypress preserve floor.
I guess we can thank El Niño for this unusual winter sight. Record rainfall has filled swamp areas back up to summer levels, and these ‘gals’ and ‘guys’ have come to scour the grounds for bugs and other edible critters. And throughout the past week, they have continued to turn up daily to put on their show. Greedy for more, I am now hoping some egrets, herons, woodstorks and roseate spoonbills decide to join them!
When one sees ibis in such abundance, it’s hard (and sickening) to imagine that there was a time 100-odd-years ago when ibis and many other of Florida’s beautiful birds were hunted down and slaughtered for their plumage with populations being decimated as a result. The author of the accompanying article from the Rome Daily Sentinel, published on 18 August 1896, attests to the fact that hunting for the birds had gotten way out of control and measures were desperately needed to protect them. Thankfully, that eventually happened, and hence, sights such as the one in my backyard are not uncommon in Florida today (they are just uncommon in my backyard!).
The 1896 article mentions the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) as particularly being singled out by hunters (image right) along with herons and snowy egrets, and song birds like mockingbirds and cardinals. (The American flamingo, mentioned in the article as being abundant in South Florida in the 1800s, has all but disappeared in the wild. If you happen to see one in Florida today, it is likely an escapee from an area attraction.)
I’ve never seen scarlet ibis in the wild in Florida, but apparently they are occasionally spotted. Their native range today appears to be along the northern and eastern coastlines of northern South America, down to São Paolo. They can appear as vagrants in Florida, Ecuador, and a number of countries in the Caribbean.
The current IUCN Red List of Endangered Species lists the scarlet ibis as a species of ‘Least Concern’, which would please the article’s author, no doubt, if he were alive today, as would knowing that all of Florida’s birds became legally protected in 1913.
The Smithsonian article “How Two Women Ended the Deadly Feather Trade” describes how this hideous trade ultimately came to an end:
Egrets and other wading birds were being decimated until two crusading Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall, set off a revolt. Their boycott of the trade would culminate in formation of the National Audubon Society and passage of the Weeks-McLean Law, also known as the Migratory Bird Act, by Congress on March 4, 1913. The law, a landmark in American conservation history, outlawed market hunting and forbade interstate transport of birds.
One hundred years later, we are blessed to have these birds in our midst, but the picture is far from 100% rosy as Florida’s current list of threatened and endangered species attests. Thirty-six species of birds are on the list, including the snowy egret, brown pelican, and white ibis, which are classified as ‘species of special concern’, so if they were ever completely ‘out of the woods’ after 1913, they are back in them now…something to keep in mind and let others know about, if they don’t know already.
Well, enough said—time to take another look out the back window.
Have a great weekend, all, and thanks for stopping by.
Rome Daily Sentinel, 18 August 1896 (Credit: Fultonhistory.com):