Norther bald ibis

Northern bald ibis: [Geronticus eremita] Discovering Nature’s Secrets

Image 1
Image 2
Image 3
Image 4
Image 5
Image 6

Scientific Classification

AnimaliaChordataVertebrataTetrapodaAvesNeornithesNeognathaeNeoavesPelecaniformesThreskiornithidaeGeronticusGeronticus eremita

Northern bald ibis

The migratory Northern Bald Ibis, also called the hermit ibis or waldrapp (Geronticus eremita), lives in open areas including grasslands, rocky settings, and semi-deserts, frequently close to streams. Measuring 70–80 cm (28–31 in) in length, this glossy black ibis is distinguished by its non-wading habit and unique

red face and head that are unfeathered, together with a long, curved red bill. These birds reproduce in colonies on the precipices of mountains or beaches. They build stick nests and lay two or three eggs. They eat insects, lizards, and other small animals for food. With a fossil record dating back at least 1.8

million years, the Northern Bald Ibis has historically been widespread over the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern and central Europe. It disappeared from Europe’s environment more than 300 years ago, which led to ongoing efforts in the region to reintroduce it. In 2019, about 700 wild individuals remained in southern Morocco; in Syria, where they were rediscovered in 2002, their numbers declined to almost nothing, with less than ten left.

  • The goal of reintroduction efforts worldwide is to increase the declining number of northern bald ibis. These efforts include projects in Austria, Italy, Spain, and northern Morocco, as well as a breeding colony of approximately 250 birds in Turkey in 2018.
  • Together with these initiatives, the species’ natural expansion in Morocco—which reached about 200 birds in the 1990s—helped the IUCN Red List reclassify it from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2018.
  • There are currently about 2000 northern bald ibises kept in captivity. Because of their sluggish reproductive rate, hunting and consumption—especially of fledglings—have been blamed for the historical reduction in the number of northern ibises in Europe.
Northern bald ibis


  • Scientific Name: Geronticus eremita
  • Appearance: Glossy black, non-wading ibis measuring 70–80 cm (28–31 in) with a characteristic, unfeathered red face and head and a large, curved red bill.
  • Habitat: This migratory bird is typically found close to moving water in open spaces such as grasslands, semi-deserts, and rocky habitats.
  • Breeding: Breeds colonially on the ledges of mountains or coasts, usually depositing two or three eggs in a stick nest.
  • Diet: Eats insects, lizards, and other small creatures for food.
  • Historical Range: Once widespread across the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern and central Europe.
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered; worldwide reintroduction initiatives have been launched to increase numbers.
  • Reintroduction Success: There has been improvement in the programs in northern Morocco, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Turkey.
  • IUCN Red List Status Change: Downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2018.
  • Captivity: Approximately 2000 northern bald ibises are living in captivity.
  • Threats: Hunting and eating, particularly of fledglings, have historically been connected to declines; delayed reproduction increases the likelihood of local extinction.


The ibises are members of the Threskiornithidae family, which also includes spoonbills. They are distinguished by their gregarious nature, large legs, and lengthy bills that curve downward. The most closely related species in this family is the southern bald ibis (G. calvus), which is found in southern Africa. The northern bald ibis is distinguished by its unfeathered face and head. The Geronticus species can be distinguished by its unfeathered faces, predilection for desert areas over marshes, and tendency to mate on cliffs as opposed to in trees.

  • They, first described by Conrad Gesner in 1555, was named Upupa eremita by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 and later placed in the genus Geronticus by Johann Georg Wagler in 1832.
  • The species experienced a history of description, oblivion, and rediscovery, with two distinct populations emerging over 400 years ago, showing morphological, ecological, and genetic divergence.
  • Despite the significant differences, the Turkish and Moroccan populations are not classified as separate subspecies, with a notable genetic distinction involving a single cytochrome b gene mutation.
  • Fossil records date back to the Holocene in southern France, middle Pleistocene in Sicily, and the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
  • An ancestral form, Geronticus balcanicus, discovered in the late Pliocene of Bulgaria, suggests the early widespread presence of the genus in Europe, indicating a possible origin in southeastern Europe or the Middle East.
  • The genus name, Geronticus, signifies “old man” in Ancient Greek, referring to the bald head of the aged, while Eremita, derived from Late Latin, means “hermit” in reference to the species’ preference for arid habitats. The alternative name, waldrapp, translates to “forest raven” in German.


Size70–80 cm (28–31 in) long
Wingspan125–135 cm (49–53 in)
Weight1.0–1.3 kg (35–46 oz)
PlumageGlossy black with bronze-green and violet iridescence; wispy ruff on hind neck
Face and HeadDull red, unfeathered
Bill and LegsLong, curved, and red
FlightPowerful, shallow, and flexible wing beats
VocalizationGuttural hrump and high, hoarse hyoh calls at breeding colonies; otherwise silent
Sexual DimorphismMales generally larger with longer bills
ChickUniformly pale brown plumage; fledged juvenile resembles adult with dark head, light grey legs, and pale bill
Bill Length (mm)– Morocco: Male – 141.1, Female – 133.5; Turkey: Male – 129.0, Female – 123.6
Population DifferencesMoroccan birds have significantly longer bills than Turkish birds of the same sex
Recognition from Southern Bald IbisDistinguished by the northern species’ dull red face and head compared to the whitish face of the southern species
Distinction from Glossy Ibis in FlightDifferent wing profile, shorter neck, and relatively short legs, with feet not projecting beyond the tail

Habitat and Range

They breeds on unaltered cliff ledges and forages for food in irregularly cultivated, grazed dry areas such as semi-arid steppes and fallow fields, in contrast to many other ibises that nest in trees and feed in wetlands. An essential habitat need is that breeding cliffs be located close to sufficient

steppe feeding regions. The Geronticus eremita was once widely distributed over the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern and central Europe. Fossil evidence of the species can be found in Solothurn and dates to the Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods. The species was first reported by the Swiss naturalist

Conrad Gesner in the hilly regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and along the Danube and Rhone Rivers. Nesting on the ledges of cliffs and castle battlements, it inexplicably disappeared from Europe more than three centuries ago. With only about 500 birds remaining in the nearly extinct natural

breeding population, the species is currently found in Morocco, mostly in the SoussMassa National Park. Nearly half of the Moroccan breeding population is housed in these three colonies, along with another one close to the mouth of the Oued Tamri (north of Agadir).

It has been noted that there is some bird migration between these two sites.

  • Religious beliefs in Turkey protected the Geronticus eremita, as it was thought to guide Hajj pilgrims to Mecca, contributing to its survival in one Turkish colony after disappearing from Europe.
  • An annual festival celebrated the ibis’s return north in this Turkish colony near Birecik, maintaining a stable population of about 500 breeding pairs until around 1930.
  • Despite drastic declines in the 1970s, a captive breeding program was initiated in 1977, but it failed to revert the decline, leading to the species becoming extinct in the wild in Turkey by 1992.
  • The captive flock, once free-flying for most of the year, was caged in autumn to prevent migration after the wild Turkish population became non-viable.
  • After the Turkish colony’s demise, they survived only in Moroccan sites, with occasional sightings in Yemen, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Israel during the 1980s and 1990s.
  • In 2002, intensive field surveys revealed the species still existed in the Syrian desert steppes, contradicting earlier beliefs of its extinction in Syria more than 70 years prior.
  • Systematic searches identified 15 old nesting sites, and near Palmyra, an active breeding colony of seven individuals was found, indicating the species’ persistence in the region.
  • Overexploitation of range lands and increasing hunting pressures initiated a dramatic decline in the Syrian population about 20 years ago.

The breeding population of Geronticus eremita inhabits Morocco and disperses along the coast after the nesting season. They may benefit from coastal fog, which provides extra moisture and enables them to stay all year round. On the other hand, prior to Morocco, the species would travel south for the winter.

In the past, it has also been seen as a vagrant in a number of places, including as Egypt, the Azores, Spain, Iraq, and Cape Verde. Thirteen Syrian Geronticus eremita were satellite tagged in 2006, and it was discovered that the four marked adults and the untagged third adult wintered together in the

Ethiopian highlands from February to July. The species had not been seen in this area in nearly thirty years. The birds were migrating; they crossed Saudi Arabia and Yemen en route to the south along the eastern shore of the Red Sea, then returned north via Sudan and Eritrea.

Northern bald ibis



Breeding ColoniesLoosely spaced colonies on cliff ledges or amongst boulders on steep slopes, often near the coast or rivers. Extra ledge spaces created by volunteers in Souss-Massa colonies. Artificial nest boxes used in the Birecik colony. In the past, birds nested in buildings.
Breeding Age and PairingBreeding starts at three to five years of age. Pairs for life. Male selects and prepares the nest site, attracting the female through displays and calls. Bond reinforced through bowing and mutual preening.
Nest and EggsLoose nest construction of twigs lined with grass or straw. Typically lays two to four rough-surfaced eggs weighing around 50.16 g (1.769 oz). Eggs are initially blue-white with brown spots, turning brown during incubation.
Incubation and FledgingIncubation period of 24–25 days. Chicks fledge in another 40–50 days. First flight occurs at about two months. Both parents participate in incubation and feeding of chicks.
LifespanAverage lifespan of 20 to 25 years in captivity (oldest recorded male 37 years, oldest recorded female 30 years). In the wild, the average age is estimated as 10 to 15 years.


They are sociable bird, flying in flocks of up to 100 birds in winter as they migrate between cliff breeding locations or winter roosts and feeding regions. These ibises go far from the colony during the breeding season—up to 15 km (9.3 mi)—in search of food.

They may use fallow land and occasionally farmed fields, although their preferred feeding grounds are intact steppe areas. The diet of the northern bald ibis is varied, although it mostly consists of animal products. The Moroccan breeding population’s feces showed a predilection for tenebrionid beetles and

lizards. Small animals, ground-nesting birds, and a variety of invertebrates like snails, scorpions, spiders, and caterpillars are also included in the diet. In order to get food, males may participate in “scrounging” behavior. The ibis uses its long bill to search for food items in the soft, sandy soil as it moves across the

ground. The bird favors softer ground, and for it to hunt well, there must be a minimum of 15-20 cm (6-8 in) of low-lying plants.


The average speed range of the Geronticus eremita is 25 to 35 miles per hour (40 to 56 kilometers per hour).

Northern bald ibis

Conservation status

By the early 20th century, they were almost extinct in Europe, but remnant colonies continued to exist in Morocco and Algeria until the late 1980s. The number of colonies in Morocco decreased from roughly 38 in 1940 to 15 in 1975, and by 1989, the migratory populations in the Atlas

Mountains were vanished. As of 2018, the species—which is currently endangered—had over 1,000 breeding pairs in captivity and about 147 breeding pairs in the wild. Conservation efforts secured breeding habitats in Morocco and enabled growth to other locations, despite the species being once

again classified as critically endangered. A comprehensive worldwide conservation action plan has been agreed upon for the northern bald ibis, making it an important species under the draft Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA).

Because the species is threatened, commercial trade in any of its components or derivatives is forbidden, and it is included in Appendix 1 of CITES. The northern bald ibis has been in decline for generations, and in the previous century, its population dropped by an astounding 98% between 1900 and 2002. This

decline is caused by a number of factors, such as disturbance, chemical poisoning, habitat loss from agricultural changes, especially in Morocco, human persecution through hunting, and the construction of dams. Three deceased ibises from the Turkish colony in Jordan were found, indicating persistent

pesticide-related risks during migration. postmortem results, which at first suggested the animal was poisoned, showed that it had been electrocuted while standing on electrical pylons, underscoring the variety of risks to the species.

Wild populations

LocationConservation EffortsPopulation Information
Morocco– Monitoring by BirdLife International partners (RSPB, SEO/BirdLife, GREPOM) with support from institutions like Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.– Evidence of population growth: Increased to 100 breeding pairs in the decade before 2008 and reached a record of 113 breeding pairs in 2013.
– Site and species protection measures led to a significant increase in the population.– In early 2019, the total population in Souss-Massa National Park and Tamri reached 708 birds after 147 breeding pairs produced 170 chicks.
– Challenges include managing non-intensive land use for future growth and preventing disturbance.– Main cause of breeding failure: Loss of eggs to predators, especially common ravens.
– Human intrusion reduction, provision of drinking water, and predator deterrence contribute to breeding success.– Mortality incident in May 1996: 40 adults died or disappeared, cause likely a virus, toxin, or botulism.
– Focus on steppe and two-year fallows as key feeding habitats.
Syria– Conservation efforts initiated upon discovery of an unreported relict colony in Palmyra in early 2002.– Successful community-based breeding protection program established in Palmyra during 2002–2004, with 14 chicks fledging.
– Establishment of an Ibis Protected Area, awareness programs, and education initiatives.– Two breeding failures in 2005 and 2008; survival rate of immature birds a significant concern.
– Discovery based on traditional ecological knowledge of Bedouin nomads.– Satellite tagging revealed migratory routes and wintering site in Ethiopia; mortality due to hunting and electrocution.
– Challenges include hunting and electrocution impacting immature ibises’ survival.– Supplementation trial in 2010 with captive-born chicks introduced into the wild colony.
– Conservation efforts interrupted in March 2011 due to the Syrian Civil War.– As of 2017, some birds are still seen at the wintering grounds.
Turkey– Establishment of a semi-wild colony at Birecik after the loss of the genuinely wild Turkish population.– Successful management with numbers reaching 205 as of March 2016.
– Birds taken into captivity after breeding season to prevent migration.– Intention to allow migration once stable at 100 pairs, excluding young.
– Risks of migration, including exposure to pesticides, considered in management.– Reintroduction projects established guidelines, including no augmenting wild populations from zoo-bred ibises.
– Two distinctive populations recognized: Eastern and Western forms.
– Hand-rearing chicks, teaching migration routes, and using birds of known origin emphasized in future captive breeding programs.
Zoo Populations– European zoos house 850 Geronticus eremita; 250 in captivity in Japan and North America.– Reintroduction projects receive EU support under the LIFE+ Biodiversity program until 2019.
– Breeding programs in European zoos producing 80 to 100 young birds annually.– Successful reintroduction projects in Austria, Spain, and Morocco.
– Challenges include skin problems, avian tuberculosis, and other diseases in zoo collections.– Ongoing efforts to monitor migratory patterns and behaviors.
Europe– Historical protection efforts in Austria since 1504; species vanished around 1630–1645.– Reintroduction projects in Austria involve research on flock interactions, hormonal status, and migration traditions.
– Two reintroduction projects in Austria at Grünau and Kuchl, including a migratory waldrapp colony.– Scharnstein Project aims to establish a migratory colony using ultralight planes.
– EU support for reintroduction projects under the LIFE+ Biodiversity program.– Reintroduction projects in Spain involve successful breeding and growth of colonies.
– First recorded breeding pair in Switzerland reported in June 2023 after over 400 years.
Northern Morocco– Planned reintroduction at Ain Tijja-Mezguitem in the north-east of Morocco.– Intention to establish a non-migratory population in an area where the species bred until about 1980.
– Challenges include vulnerability of wild populations further south and potential erosion of breeding ledges.– Aviary in the Rif mountains built in 2000; stocked with zoo-bred birds and maintained.
– Second importation in 2004; six pairs bred successfully in 2006; further efforts ongoing.
Northern bald ibis

Species in same Genus

The genus Geronticus includes the Geronticus eremita. The southern bald ibis (Geronticus calvus) is another species that belongs to the same genus.

In culture

According to a local tale in Birecik, Noah released the Geronticus eremita as one of the first birds following the flood, signifying fertility. Ibis colonies survived because of their cultural value in Turkey, despite the demise of the species in Europe.The northern bald ibis was highly valued in ancient Egypt

because to its beauty and brilliance. It was frequently connected to Thoth, the gods’ scribe, and stood for excellence, glory, honor, and virtue. The Old Egyptian term “akh,” which means “to be resplendent, to shine,” was depicted in hieroglyphics with a bald ibis reflecting its glossy feathers.

Furthermore, “akh” had a more general sense, denoting the spirit or soul, one of the five components of personality.

  • Herodotus mentioned the man-eating Stymphalian birds with metallic feathers, a potential inspiration from them, although often linked to the sacred ibis due to descriptions as marsh birds without crests.
  • Depictions, such as a 6thcentury BC Athenian amphora, portray the sacred ibis with a black head and white body.
  • After the extinction of the bald ibis in Central Europe, Gesner’s description was sometimes considered depicting mythical creatures.
  • A 1490 Gothic fresco in Slovenia and illustrations in the St Galler Handschrift (1562) and Missale Romanum (1582-1590) likely represent the northern bald ibis.
  • Birecik, Turkey, revived the ancient celebration ‘Kelaynak yortusu’ in mid-February to mark the return of the birds from Africa.
  • Various countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, Austria, and Jersey, have featured the Geronticus eremitan postage stamps.

Common Names in Different Languages

LanguageCommon Name
EnglishNorthern Bald Ibis
FrenchIbis chauve du Nord
SpanishIbis Eremita
ItalianIbis eremita
Arabicالأكواك الإمبراطورية الشمالية
GreekΙβις του Βορρά
Hebrewיַנְשׁוּף הַקֶּרַח הַצָּפוֹן
RussianСеверный лысый ибис
Northern bald ibis


  1. What is the Northern Bald Ibis?
    • The Geronticus eremita, is a species of bird distinguished by its long bill that curves downward and its characteristic bald red face.
  2. Where is the natural habitat of the Geronticus eremita?
    • Parts of southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa are home to the species.
  3. What is the significance of the bald red face?
    • The bald red face is a trait that is believed to play a role in courtship displays throughout the breeding season.
  4. How does the Northern Bald Ibis sound?
    • During social interactions, they makes a range of vocalizations, such as grunts and croaks.
  5. What are the main threats to the Northern Bald Ibis population?
    • The loss of habitat, human disturbance, predators (particularly during breeding season), and past factors that have contributed to population reduction are among the threats.
  6. How is the breeding population monitored in Morocco?
    • Partnerships with organizations like the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, RSPB, SEO/BirdLife, GREPOM, and BirdLife International are all part of Morocco’s monitoring efforts.
  7. Is there evidence of population growth in the wild?
    • Indeed, there is evidence of population growth; in 2013, the number of Moroccan breeding pairs reached 113, following a decade of increase prior to 2008.
  8. What role do local communities play in conservation efforts?
    • Local communities take part in wardening to lessen human interference, improve breeding opportunities by discouraging predators, and raise awareness of the birds’ intrinsic worth.
  9. Are there conservation efforts in other regions, like Syria and Turkey?
    • Indeed, initiatives include the creation of a semi-wild colony in Birecik, Turkey, and community-based breeding protection projects in Syria.
  10. How are European zoos involved in conservation?
  • Captive populations are kept in European zoos, where breeding and reintroduction initiatives are the main focus of conservation operations.
  • Are there any myths or cultural significance associated with the Northern Bald Ibis?
  • An old ceremony known as “Kelaynak yortusu” is conducted in Birecik, Turkey, in mid-February to commemorate the birds’ return from Africa.

Similar Posts