Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus)

Also known as: Asian white ibis, Indian black necked ibis, Indian white ibis, Oriental black necked ibis, Oriental ibis, Oriental white ibis, white ibis
Synonyms: Tantalus melanocephalus
GenusThreskiornis (1)
SizeLength: 65 - 76 cm (2)
Wingspan: 130 cm (3)

The black-headed ibis is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus) is a large, white waterbird with a prominent bare black head and neck, and a long, down-curved black bill (4) (5). The body of this species is elongated but robust (4).

The tail of the black-headed ibis bears grey ornamental feathers, in contrast to its close relative the African sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), in which these feathers are black (4).

Both the male and female black-headed ibis are similar in size and appearance. During the breeding season, bare patches under the wings turn a blood red colour, the head can develop a blue tinge and the legs often become glossy black (4). The breeding adult also develops a loose ruff of white feathers on the lower neck and sometimes a yellowish wash on the breast and back (5).

Juvenile black-headed ibises have grey feathers on the head and a white neck (2) (5), and it is three years before the full adult plumage is acquired (4).

The black-headed ibis is usually a silent bird (2), but when males and females are courting they are known for their loud booming calls (4) and low grunting (2) (5).

The black-headed ibis is also known as the Oriental white ibis, reflecting its South and East Asian range. This bird was previously a wide-ranging species, but its distribution has become more fragmented in recent decades (4).

The black-headed ibis is most widespread in India, and breeds throughout most of the country (4). It is also found in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and is a rare visitor to Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines (2) (5) (6).

In some parts of its range the black-headed ibis is migratory, moving south in winter to southern China, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Sumatra and the Philippines (2) (5).

The black-headed ibis is predominantly a wetland bird, and lives mainly in lowland areas not more than 950 metres above sea level (6). It frequently inhabits swamps, lake and river margins, wet grasslands and paddy fields. More rarely it is also found in tidal mudflats, mangroves and brackish lagoons (2) (6).

This species also nests in wetlands (2), sometimes close to human dwellings if relatively undisturbed (4). The black-headed ibis is quite nomadic and will move in response to food availability and water levels, particularly floods or droughts (2)(6).

The black-headed ibis is a social species, feeding and nesting in groups (2). It is primarily carnivorous, with a diet that includes frogs, tadpoles, snails, insects and worms. More coastal populations will also eat fish and crustaceans (2), and the black-headed ibis has also been found to sometimes eat vegetable matter (4).

To obtain food, the black-headed ibis usually probes with its bill in mud and shallow water, and can submerge its entire head and neck while wading if needed (2). It will also feed on dry land from time to time, but moves around as tides change (4). Interestingly, the black-headed ibis will sometimes associate with grazing buffalos, taking insects that are thrown up as the buffalos move around (2).

This species nests in well protected areas, often in colonies which include other species of heron and stork (4). It builds its nest in trees near to water, or in partially submerged shrubs. The breeding season of the black-headed ibis is determined by the monsoons, and it will often begin pairing up after the rains are over (4).

When courting, male black-headed ibises perform display flights and show off their ornamental plumes, and they will often spar with other males, thrusting their bill at opponents (4). The male will advertise to females by popping its bill and rubbing its head, and when pairing up both the male and female will ‘bow’ before mating. The displays of the black-headed ibis are notably much less aggressive than in the closely related African sacred ibis (T. aethiopicus(4).

During mating, the male black-headed ibis straddles the female and grasps with its bill. Afterwards, the nest is built, with the male collecting sticks and the female arranging them (4). The nests of this species are around 30 centimetres wide (4). Between 2 and 4 eggs are laid, and are incubated for 23 to 25 days. However, it is rare that more than 2 young survive to fledge around 40 days later due to predation by crows and humans, as well as over-heating (2).

The black-headed ibis population is in decline due to a range of threats (6), the most widespread being the pressure on its habitat from expanding human populations (2).

Like other wetland species, the black-headed ibis is vulnerable to the drainage of wetlands and the conversion of its habitat for agriculture (2) (6). It is also increasingly affected by hunting and egg collecting, as well as poisoning by pesticides and disturbance at its breeding colonies (2) (6).

The East Asian population of the black-headed ibis is particularly small, numbering fewer than 100 individuals. An estimated 20,000 birds occur in other parts of South and Southeast Asia (6).

There are no specific conservation measures currently in place for the black-headed ibis (6), although it often nests in protected areas (4).

It has been proposed that the black-headed ibis should be monitored at important colony sites, to determine which threats are most affecting its populations (6). To reduce hunting and egg collecting, education programmes should be conducted, with the hope of encouraging greater protection of nesting habitats (6).

Find out more about the black-headed ibis and its conservation:

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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Kennedy, R.S., Gonzales, P.C., Dickinson, E.C., Miranda Jr, H.C. and Fisher, T.H. (2000) A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Hancock, J.A., Kushlan, J.A. and Kahl, M.P. (1992) Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills of the World. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  5. Brazil, M. (2009) Birds of East Asia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  6. BirdLife International (March, 2012)