Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE WOOD IBIS.
TANTALUS LOCULATOR, Linn.
This very remarkable bird, and all others of the same genus that are known
to occur in the United States, are constant residents in some part of our
Southern Districts, although they perform short migrations. A few of them now
and then stray as fir as the Middle States, but instances of this are rare; and
I am not aware that any have been seen farther to the eastward than the southern
portions of Maryland, excepting a few individuals of the Glossy and the White
Ibises, which have been procured in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. The
Carolinas, Georgia, the Floridas, Alabama, Lower Louisiana, including
Opellousas, and Mississippi, are the districts to which they resort by
preference, and in which they spend the whole year. With the exception of the
Glossy Ibis, which may be looked upon as a bird of the Mexican territories, and
which usually appears in the Union singly or in pairs, they all live socially in
immense flocks, especially during the breeding season. The country which they
inhabit is doubtless the best suited to their habits; the vast and numerous
swamps, lagoons, bayous, and submersed savannahs that occur in the lower parts
of our Southern States, all abounding with fishes and reptiles; and the
temperature of these countries being congenial to their constitutions.
In treating of the bird now under your notice, Mr. WILLIAM BARTRAM says,
"This solitary bird does not associate in flocks, but is generally seen alone."
This was published by WILSON, and every individual who has since written on the
subject, has copied the assertion without probably having any other reason than
that he believed the authors of it to state a fact. But the habits of this
species are entirely at variance with the above quotation, to which I direct
your attention not without a feeling of pain, being assured that Mr. BARTRAM
could have made such a statement only because he had few opportunities of
studying the bird in question in its proper haunts.
The Wood Ibis is rarely met with single, even after the breeding season,
and it is more easy for a person to see a hundred together at any period of the
year, than to meet with one by itself. Nay, I have seen flocks composed of
several thousands, and that there is a natural necessity for their flocking
together I shall explain to you. This species feeds entirely on fish and
aquatic reptiles, of which it destroys an enormous quantity, in fact more than
it eats; for if they have been killing fish for half an hour and have gorged
themselves, they suffer the rest to lie on the water untouched, when it becomes
food for Alligators, Crows, and Vultures, whenever these animals can lay hold of
it. To procure its food, the Wood Ibis walks through shallow muddy lakes or
bayous in numbers. As soon as they have discovered a place abounding in fish,
they dance as it were all through it, until the water becomes thick with the mud
stirred from the bottom by their feet. The fishes, on rising to the surface,
are instantly struck by the beaks of the Ibises, and, on being deprived of life,
they turn over and so remain. In the course of ten or fifteen minutes, hundreds
of fishes, frogs, young alligators, and water-snakes cover the surface, and the
birds greedily swallow them until they are completely gorged, after which they
walk to the nearest margins, place themselves in long rows, with their breasts
all turned towards the sun, in the manner of Pelicans and Vultures, and thus
remain for an hour or so. When digestion is partially accomplished, they all
take to wing, rise in spiral circlings to an immense height, and sail about for
an hour or more, performing the most beautiful evolutions that can well be
conceived. Their long necks and legs are stretched out to their full extent,
the pure white of their plumage contrasts beautifully with the jetty black of
the tips of their wings. Now in large circles they seem to ascend toward the
upper regions of the atmosphere; now, they pitch towards the earth; and again,
gently rising, they renew their gyrations. Hunger once more induces them to go
in search of food, and, with extended front, the band sails rapidly towards
another lake or bayou.
Mark the place, reader, and follow their course through cane-brake,
cypress-swamp, and tangled wood. Seldom do they return to the same feeding
place on the same day. You have reached the spot, and are standing on the
margin of a dark-watered bayou, the sinuosities of which lead your eye into a
labyrinth ending in complete darkness. The tall canes bow to each other from
the shores; the majestic trees above them, all bung with funereal lichen, gently
wave in the suffocating atmosphere; the bullfrog, alarmed, shrinks back into the
water; the alligator raises his head above its surface, probably to see if the
birds have arrived, and the wily cougar is stealthily advancing toward one of
the Ibises, which he expects to carry off into the thicket. Through the dim
light your eye catches a glimpse of the white-plumaged birds, moving rapidly
like spectres to and fro. The loud cracking of their mandibles apprises you of
the havoc they commit among the terrified inhabitants of the waters. Move,
gently or not, move at all, and you infallibly lose your opportunity of
observing the actions of the birds. Some old male has long marked you; whether
it has been with eye or with ear, no matter. The first stick your foot cracks,
his hoarse voice sounds the alarm. Off they all go, battering down the bending
canes with their powerful pinions, and breaking the smaller twigs of the trees,
as they force a passage for themselves.
Talk to me of the stupidity of birds, of the dulness of the Wood Ibis!
say it is fearless, easily approached, and easily shot. I listen, but it is
merely through courtesy; for I have so repeatedly watched its movements, in all
kinds of circumstances, that I am quite convinced we have not in the United
States a more shy, wary, and vigilant bird than the Wood Ibis. In the course of
two years spent, I may say, among them, for I saw some whenever I pleased during
that period, I never succeeded in surprising one, not even under night, when
they were roosting on trees at a height of nearly a hundred feet, and sometimes
rendered farther secure by being over extensive swamps.
My Journal informs me, that, one autumn while residing near Bayou Sara,
being intent on procuring eight or ten of these birds, to skin for my learned
and kind friend the Prince of MUSIGNANO, I took with me two servants, who were
first-rate woodsmen, and capital hands at the rifle, and that notwithstanding
our meeting with many hundreds of Wood Ibises, it took us three days to shoot
fifteen, which were for the most part killed on wing with rifle-balls, at a
distance of about a hundred yards. On that occasion we discovered that a flock
roosted regularly over a large corn-field covered with huge girted trees, the
tops of which were almost all decayed. We stationed ourselves apart in the
field, concealed among the tall ripened corn, and in silence awaited the arrival
of the birds. After the sun had disappeared, the broad front of a great flock
of Ibises was observed advancing towards us. They soon alighted in great
numbers on the large branches of the dead trees; but whenever one of the
branches gave way under their weight, all at once rose in the air, flew about
several times, and alighted again. One of my companions, having a good
opportunity, fired, and brought two down with a single bullet; but here the
sport was ended. In five minutes after, not an Ibis was within a mile of the
place, nor did any return to roost there for more than a month. When on the
margin of a lake, or even in the centre of it--for all the lakes they frequent
are exceedingly shallow--the first glimpse they have of a man induces them to
exert all their vigilance; and should he after this advance a few steps, the
birds fly off.
The name of "Wood Ibis" given to this bird, is not more applicable to it
than to any other species; for every one with which I am acquainted resorts
quite as much to the woods at particular periods. All our species may be
found on wet savannahs, on islands surrounded even by the waters of the sea, the
Florida Keys for example, or in the most secluded parts of the darkest woods,
provided they are swampy, or are furnished with ponds. I have found the Wood,
the Red, the White, the Brown, and the Glossy Ibises around ponds in the centre
of immense forests; and in such places, even in the desolate pine-barrens of the
Floridas; sometimes several hundred miles from the sea coast, on the Red river,
in the State of Louisiana, and above Natchez, in that of Mississippi, as well as
within a few miles of the ocean. Yet, beyond certain limits, I never saw one of
One of the most curious circumstances connected with this species is, that
although the birds are, when feeding, almost constantly within the reach of
large alligators, of which they devour the young, these reptiles never attack
them; whereas, if a Duck or a Heron comes within the reach of their tails, it is
immediately killed and swallowed. The Wood Ibis will wade up to its belly in
the water, round the edges of "alligators' holes," without ever being injured;
but should one of these birds be shot, an alligator immediately makes towards it
and pulls it under water. The gar-fish is not so courteous, but gives chase to
the Ibises whenever an opportunity occurs. The snapping-turtle is also a great
enemy to the young birds of this species.
The flight of the Wood Ibis is heavy at its rising from the ground. Its
neck at that moment is deeply curved downward, its wings flap heavily but with
great power, and its long legs are not stretched out behind until it has
proceeded many yards. But as soon as it has attained a height of eight or ten
feet, it ascends with great celerity, generally in a spiral direction, in
silence if not alarmed, or, if frightened, with a rough croaking guttural note.
When fairly on wing, they proceed in a direct flight, with alternate flappings
and sailings of thirty or forty yards, the sailings more prolonged than the
flappings. They alight on trees with more ease than Herons generally do, and
either stand erect or crouch on the branches, in the manner of the Wild Turkey,
the Herons seldom using the latter attitude. When they are at rest, they place
their bill against the breast, while the neck shrinks as it were between the
shoulders. In this position you may see fifty on the same tree, or on the
ground, reposing in perfect quiet for hours at a time, although some individual
of the party will be constantly on the look-out, and ready to sound the alarm.
In the spring months, when these birds collect in large flocks, before they
return to their breeding places, I have seen thousands together, passing over
the woods in a line more than a mile in extent, and moving with surprising speed
at the height of only a few yards above the trees. When a breeding place has
once been chosen, it is resorted to for years in succession; nor is it easy to
make them abandon it after they have deposited their eggs, although, if much
annoyed, they never return to it after that season.
Besides the great quantity of fishes that these Ibises destroy, they also
devour frogs, young alligators, wood-rats, young rails and grakles, fiddlers and
other crabs, as well as snakes and small turtles. They never eat the eggs of
the alligator, as has been alleged, although they probably would do so, could
they demolish the matted nests of that animal, a task beyond the power of any
bird known to me. I never saw one eat any thing which either it or some of its
fellows had not killed. Nor will it eat an animal that has been dead for some
time, even although it may have been killed by itself. When eating, the
clacking of their mandibles may be heard at the distance of several hundred
When wounded, it is dangerous to approach them, for they bite severely.
They may be said to be very tenacious of life. Although usually fat, they are
very tough and oily, and therefore are not fit for food. The negroes, however,
eat them, having, previous to cooking them, torn off the skin, as they do with
Pelicans and Cormorants. My own attempts, I may add, were not crowned with
success. Many of the negroes of Louisiana destroy these birds when young for
the sake of the oil which their flesh contains, and which they use in greasing
The French Creoles of that State name them "Grands Flamans," while the
Spaniards of East Florida know them by the name of "Gannets." When in the
latter country, at St. Augustine, I was induced to make an excursion, to visit a
large pond or lake, where I was assured there were Gannets in abundance, which I
might shoot off the trees, provided I was careful enough. On asking the
appearance of the Gannets, I was told that they were large white birds, with
wings black at the end, a long neck, and a large sharp bill. The description so
far agreeing with that of the Common Gannet or Solan Goose, I proposed no
questions respecting the legs or tail, but went off. Twenty-three miles,
reader, I trudged through the woods, and at last came in view of the pond; when,
lo! its borders and the trees around it were covered with Wood Ibises. Now, as
the good people who gave the information spoke according to their knowledge, and
agreeably to their custom of calling the Ibises Gannets, had I not gone to the
pond, I might have written this day that Gannets are found in the interior of
the woods in the Floridas, that they alight on trees, &c, which, if once
published, would in all probability have gone down to future times through the
medium of compilers, and all perhaps without acknowledgment.
The Wood Ibis takes four years in attaining full maturity, although birds
of the second year are now and then found breeding. This is rare, however, for
the young birds live in flocks by themselves, until they have attained the age
of about three years. They are at first of a dingy brown, each feather edged
with paler; the head is covered to the mandibles with short downy feathers,
which gradually fall off as the bird advances in age. In the third year, the
head is quite bare, as well as a portion of the upper part of the neck. In the
fourth year, the bird is as you see it in the plate. The male is much larger
and heavier than the female, but there is no difference in colour between the
WOOD IBIS, Tantalus Loculator, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. viii. p. 39.
TANTALUS LOCULATOR, Bonap. Syn., p. 310.
WOOD IBIS, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 82.
WOOD IBIS, Tantalus Loculator, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 128.
Male, 44 1/2, 62; bill, 9.
Resident from Texas to North Carolina, in deep woody swamps; or freshwater
lakes, not on the sea-shores; breeds on trees in swamps; moves in large flocks.
Up the Mississippi to Natchez. Abundant in Florida and Lower Louisiana.
Bill long, stout, at the base as wide as the face, deeper than broad,
compressed, tapering towards the end, which is curved. Upper mandible with the
dorsal line straight to near the end, then considerably curved, the ridge rather
broad and flattened at the base, narrowed at the middle, convex towards the end,
the sides sloping and rather flat at the base, towards the end rounded, the
edges overlapping, inflected, sharp but strong, the tip declinate, Darrow,
rounded, with a notch on either side. Nostrils basal, close to the ridge,
direct, pervious, oblong; no nasal groove. Lower mandible curved towards the
end, like the upper, its angle rather wide, and having a bare dilatable
membrane, the sides rather flat and erect at the base, afterwards narrowed and
with the back rounded, the edges erect, sharp, with a groove externally for the
insertion of those of the upper mandible.
Head of ordinary size, short, compressed. Neck long. Body rather slender,
deeper than broad. Wings large. Feet very long, slender, like those of the
Heron. Tibia long, slender, bare for one-half of its length; and with the long,
compressed tarsus, covered all-round with hexagonal scales. Toes rather long and
slender, the first smallest, the second next in length, the third longest, the
fourth intermediate between the second and third, all covered above with
numerous scutella, laterally with angular scales, beneath flattened with soft
margins, the anterior connected at the base by pretty large webs, of which the
outer is larger. Claws small, rather compressed, rounded above, obtuse, the
thin edge of that of the third not serrated.
The head all round, and the hind neck half way down, destitute of feathers,
the skin wrinkled and covered with irregular scurfy scales. Plumage in general
rather loose, more so on the neck. Wings long, ample, primaries strong, the
third longest, second almost as long, fourth about the same length, as third,
first considerably shorter, all curved, emarginate, of twelve broad, rounded
Bill dusky yellowish-brown, the edges yellow. Sides of the head dark
bluish-purple, upper part of the head horn-colour or dull greyish-yellow, the
rest of the bare skin of the same tint, many of the scales anteriorly blue.
Iris deep brown, at a distance seeming black. Tibia and tarsus indigo-blue.
Toes above black, on the lateral and hind toes, however, many of the scutella
bluish-grey; the webs pale yellowish flesh-colour; claws black.
The general colour of the plumage is pure white with a tinge of yellow.
Alula, primary coverts, primary and secondary quills, excepting the inner, and
tail, black, with green and purplish-blue reflections, according to the light in
which they are viewed.
Length to end of tail 44 1/2 inches, to end of claws 59 1/2, to end of
wings 46 1/2; win from flexure 18; tail 6; extent of wings 62; bill along the
back 9 1/2, along the edge 9, its greatest depth 2 1/4; bare part of tibia 6;
tarsus 9; middle toe 4 2/12, its claw 3/4. Weight 11 3/4 lbs.
The Female is precisely similar to the male, differing merely in being
smaller. Its weight is 9 1/4 lbs.
The Young are dusty-grey all over, the quill's and tail brownish-black. The
head all covered with down, excepting just at the base of the bill. After the
first moult, the bare space extends over the head and cheeks; the downy feathers
of the hind head and neck are dusky; the general colour of the plumage is white,
the quills and tail nearly as in the adult, but with less gloss. A male of this
description shot in January was in length 35 inches, its bill 7 1/2, tarsus 7,
middle toe 4, its claw 1/2; its weight 7 3/4 lbs.
When the Wood Ibis has caught a fish too large to be easily swallowed, it
shakes its head in a violent manner, as if to force its prey down or drive it
up again. In the latter case, it carries the fish to the shore, and breaks it
into pieces, which it then swallows.
This species has the subcutaneous cellular tissue highly developed,
especially along the breast, and the lower parts of the body, although not by
any means so much so as in the Brown Pelican. I have represented a flock of
these birds in the back ground, with the view of giving you an idea of the
swamps to which they usually resort. They are on the edge of an alligator's
hole, at their avocations. The trees clad with dangling mosses, afford evidence
of the insalubrity of the atmosphere. You see the alligators with their heads
and backs above water, watching the motions of the birds.