An online chat and a couple of emails have encouraged me to return to the topic of Bald Ibis and, more particularly, its history in Iberia (see also http://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/bald-ibis-re-introduction). I'm very glad that I did so since it brought to my attention an excellent article ( Evidence of the historic presence of the Northern Bald Ibis [Geronticus eremita] in Spain by Iñigo Sánchez) published in 2006 which I'd previously missed (see http://www.researchgate.net/publication/235994501_Evidence_of_the_historic_presence_of_the_Northern_Bald_Ibis_%28Geronticus_eremita%29_in_Spain). What follows is little more than a digest of that article with a few observations of my own.
There's no doubt that the project to re-introduce the Bald Ibis into Andalucia has, thus far, been a great success. One colony is now well established and it is making a significant contribution towards rescuing this species from extinction. After a somewhat uncertain start, the project quickly hit its stride with 7 pairs breeding in 2011, 8 pairs in 2012, 15 pairs in 2013 and no less than 24 pairs in 2014 indicating that the colony is on its way to becoming self sustaining. It is now, I believe, the largest free flying population outside Morocco. With the fate of the tiny Syria population being very uncertain and the Turkish birds no longer free-flying this project is of huge significance. It's even established the bird as a minor tourist attraction with the birds on the cliffs at La Barca de Vejer (below Vejer de la Frontera) rarely being without a small number of admirers and photographers. The only query is whether the term used here should be 'introduction' or 're-introduction' as the evidence for the species ever being a native of Spain is relatively 'thin'. Given the species' world wide rarity I don't mind either way as long as its future is secure, but for many 'purists' this is a critical question. Fortunately, in his article Iñigo Sánchez (Curator of Jerez Zoo) advances a strong case for this to have been the re-introduction of a species lost in historical times.
One of the most convincing arguments in favour of Bald Ibis being native to Spain in historical times comes from an examination of the species' known historical range. Although its existence at all was once doubted, it's now accepted that the species bred in central Europe (Austria, Germany and Austria) into the 17th century and there were wild populations in Turkey and Algeria up until late in the 20th century and they have persisted in Morocco and Syria (just) into the 21st century. Hence the circumstantial evidence for them to have been native right across the Mediterranean basin is very strong. Such a view is further strengthened by research suggesting that, with one exception, there are no birds now living in continental Europe as well as North Africa that are absent in the Iberian Peninsula suggesting a natural continuity between the two. (The exception is Demoiselle Crane which barely hangs on in North Africa, but, although the evidence isn't strong, this too may once have been a breeding bird in Spain). Given the relative poverty of ornithological source material in pre-modern times, the species' extinction in Spain may date to only a few hundred years ago
That Bald Ibis once lived in what we now call Spain (although not necessarily that they bred there) has been confirmed by fossil remains found in eastern Spain and Gibraltar, but to many this seems somewhat too remote historically to justify reintroduction today. It's been suggested that figures from the “Cueva del Tajo de las Figuras” Benalup, Cadiz dated from Neolithic and Chalcolithic (i.e c7000 BC to c1700 BC) represent this species. These figures are very stylistic and most are unidentifiable beyond being “long-legged waterbirds”. The predominance of waterbirds isn't so surprising as the 'cave' is close to what is now La Janda and was then doubtless a large coastal swamp. Those that are identifiable clearly depict Flamingos and one has a suitably curved bill to be an ibis. Looking more closely at the latter, it even seems to sport what could be a bunch of feathers projecting from the back of the head (what I'd call a 'mullet') just like on Bald Ibis. However, the figures presented in the article (and above) is a schematic tracing from the original so some caution is needed in interpreting the drawing. Given that all of the birds seem to be 'waterbirds' it's not surprising that one has a curved bill, but with most being so crude to be unidentifiable it's hard to draw too many conclusions beyond 'bird sp.' If my education as an historian drummed one thing into me it was “always search out the original source”, but I can find no photo of the original cave painting online and my own photos of these fascinating cave paintings do not include this figure. This shallow rock shelter (it's scarcely a cave) is well worth visiting, but recent cutbacks mean it's now closed (although check locally as it may sometimes be open). So whilst this illustration may depict Bald Ibis, without seeing the original it would be incautious to be too confident about the bird's identity as it could represent no more than a stylistic quirk or an inaccurate tracing. Given the crudity of the other drawings, the possibility of it depicting a Glossy Ibis cannot be ruled out either.
A more recent mosaic illustration from Roman times (c206 BC) found at Italica, Seville shown in Sánchez's article is supposed to depict Bald Ibis. This seems to be based on it having a curved bill and a crest (see above). My need to go back to original sources, in this case the mosaic at the House of Neptune in Italica, led me to make a closer examination of the mosaic and to draw a very different conclusion. The border of the mosaic shows half-a-dozen or so birds which, although they vary in detail, are all obviously meant to be the same sort of bird as they have many features in common. Archaeologists have apparently identified all of these birds as 'cranes' which they are clearly not, but this does indicate that the depictions are not entirely ornithologically precise. More have straight (or straightish) bills than curved ones, several (including the one used in Sánchez's article) appear to have back plumes and all show a fine head plume (not a ragged 'mullet' like Bald Ibis). Looking more closely the variety in the shape of all of the birds' bills it seems to me that their shape more reflects the problems working with tesserae than any observation from life. Surely the fine head plume alone identifies all of these birds as herons and the back plumes more specifically as egrets. Ancient mosaics often relate to some metaphorical story and that may be the case here where the birds seem to form part of a narrative involving savage homunculi. That the homunculi are surprisingly well endowed and at least one is in what the Victorians delicately used to call a 'state of arousal' suggests some sort of sexual message may be intended (itself not an uncommon feature of Roman art). Throw into the mix the fact that some eastern traditions (albeit well beyond Rome's borders) regard egrets as the epitome of femininity, then you start to see a very different picture emerge. Then there's the awkward fact that the mosaic also shows crocodiles which, as far as I'm aware, nobody's ever suggested once prowled the waters of Roman Iberia! In case you haven't already guessed, the first bird is the one identified as a Bald Ibis and it's perhaps relevant that it only seems to bend after the hand shown gripping the bill.
Thus far I've tended to pour cold water on the points made in Sánchez's article, but where he really comes up trumps and is wholly convincing is in his discussion of the 'bald raven'. This name comes from Pliny the Elder's book “Naturalis Historia” (77 AD) which mentions that a bird called in Greek Phalakrokorax (literally bald raven) lived in the Alps and the Balearic islands. Confusingly, despite Pliny's insistence that this bird was bald, this Greek name became attached to Cormorant and still is as its scientific name remains Phalacrocorax. However, as Pliny also mentions a kind of waterbird, 'mergus' which many authors consider to have been Cormorant it seems he was writing about an entirely different bird. (Just to add another layer of confusion the name 'mergus' gives us both the common and scientific name for mergansers). Although surprising to the modern birdwatcher cormorants and ravens were long considered to be related with both being called as koras, corvus, corvi, corbeau, cuervo, rapp in different European languages. Given that no other bird in the region is do obviously bald, it seems not unreasonable to identify Pliny's Phalakrokorax as a Bald Ibis.
When court physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba (1514 - 1587), translated Pliny's work into Spanish he seemed to have no doubt that the Phalakrokorax was found in Spain. Given that he also wrote one of the first natural histories of the 'New World' (Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana posthumously published in Mexico 1615) then it's safe to assume that he knew what he was about. He wrote that “bald ravens, called phalacrocoraces in Greek …. are known although they rare in Spain” (“cuervos calvos, en griego phalacrocoraces, y son conocidos aunque raros en España”) and further wrote that “it seems to be a Black Ibis for Belonio, the same that Gesner named Selvatic Raven and that we call Bald Raven in Spain” (“a Belonio le parece que sea ibis negra la que Gesnero nombra cuervo selvático, que dezimos en Hespaña cuervo calvo”). Sánchez then goes on to unearth many mentions of “cuervo calvo” (Bald Raven) in Spanish books on falconry from the 14th century onwards and all of them comment that the 'Bald Raven' was a typical target for Spanish falconers. Since they also mention Raven as simply “cuervo” and Cormorant as “cuervo marino”, there seems little doubt that they meant a different bird by “cuervo calvo” and only Bald Ibis fits the bill. Only one of these works, that by Luis Zapata de Chaves (1526 – 1595), gives specific localities for “cuervo calvo” noting that it was to be found in a number of localities in Badajoz province. The same author also mentions that the bird was good eating which may well explain its ultimate demise in Spain (and beyond). One wonders whether Hernandez and Zapata, both members of Philip II's court ever sat down and chatted about "cuervo calvo". Other authors comment that the method used to catch “cuervo calvo” was that used for birds like the crane, herons and Spoonbill which suggests this was indeed a larger bird. In passing I also wonder which 'raven' the village of El Cuervo on the border of Cadiz and Seville is named after since the principle feature of the area is a large shallow laguna which could have been attractive to Bald Ibis in the past.
So although you could argue that there's no absolutely incontrovertible evidence that Bald Ibis bred in Spain as no authors mention nests or breeding, the circumstantial evidence is extremely strong that it once did so. With written evidence of cuervo calvo's existence in Spain going back to the 14th century it seems extremely unlikely that, given their known wider range several centuries later, they didn't breed in Iberia well into historic times. Unless the birds mentioned by Luis Zapata were migrants, it seems that they persisted into the 16th century and it cannot be ruled out that they may have hung on into the 17th century making them contemporaries of the birds found in Central Europe. Is this evidence of this relatively recent occupation of Spain sufficient to justify their re-introduction? Personally, I'm convinced that it does and even were it not so, I'd still hesitate to deny this wonderfully characterful species a safe haven in this very uncertain world.
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks at Secondary School. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired now spend as much time as in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.