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The beautiful Scarlet Ibis from Trinidad

Posted in Birds, Geography, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 20 May 2011

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This edited article about West Indian bird emblems originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 944 published on 23 February 1980.

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The Scarlet Ibis

It is only a small distance from the equator and the South American coastline to the beautiful islands of Trinidad and Tobago. They were once inhabited by only a few Arawak Indians and a glorious profusion of birds and animals. Then, in 1498, Christopher Columbus landed on Trinidad. He named the island Trinidad, or “Trinity”, after the three huge peaks which led his ship towards this new discovery.

Christopher Columbus hoisted the royal standard of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and claimed the land for Spain. No more Spaniards came to disrupt the harmony of these islands for nearly 100 years, when its peace was shattered by international squabbles between the Spanish, Dutch, French and British. It was the British who fought hardest, and finally, in 1763, Tobago became a British colony. Trinidad was added to the Empire in 1797.

The islands remained under British control until independence was granted on the 31st August, 1962. Then a new coat of arms was adopted, and its two main supporters were birds – the scarlet ibis for Trinidad, and the cocrico for Tobago.

The scarlet ibis is the most graceful and beautiful member of a spectacular family of birds. The many species of ibis are closely related to the spoonbills, and, like their relations, the ibises are close to becoming extinct.

Trinidad has tried to take some measures towards protecting the scarlet ibis; the Caroni Sanctuary has been a protected zone for about 3,000 breeding pairs since 1953. Still, the ibis is mercilessly pursued, not only for its magnificent rosy plumes, but also for its rather rank and oily flesh, which is relished by some islanders.

The scarlet ibis is a very gregarious bird. The flocks of thousands seen half a century ago are no more, but it is still possible to see many hundreds of birds wading in the mangrove swamps, their long, thin, sickle-shaped bills probing the shallow waters for small fishes. The nests weigh heavily on mangrove trees, and after the pair of chicks have hatched, both the female and male spend long hours collecting the nutritious insect diet.

P. Allen, an eminent ornithologist, writing in 1961, described how countless brown, whitish or blue and pink young ibises crowd together in the mangrove thicket with a canopy of adult birds fluttering above them. He added enthusiastically: “The living beauty of the scarlet ibis is an enrichment of every country it inhabits. Its continuing protection is an enrichment for those who protect it.”

It is rare to hear a scarlet ibis: in fact, they fly in their precise V-formation in complete silence. Only when they are on the breeding grounds can low grunting or croaking notes be heard.

The ibises are an ancient group of birds, with fossil records which go back some 60 million years. Over 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians venerated the sacred ibis as representing the god Thoth, the scribe of the gods, whose duty it was to record the story of every human being. The ibis was an integral part of the Egyptians’ religion and written hieroglyphics; some were even mummified and buried in the temples, or with the pharaohs in their tombs.

Such a venerable history cannot be accredited to the cocrico, or rufous-vested chachalaca as it is also called. This strident bird in no way matches the gentle, silent scarlet ibis, except as being duly representative of the islands they both inhabit. The serene island of Tobago, with its beautiful sandy beaches protected by coral reefs, is the only home of what can only be described as a “loud-mouth”.

It takes just one cocrico sitting high in the branches of a tree to call out with a rough, unmelodic, but remarkably strong voice, to inspire all its neighbours to join in. The calls of “cha-cha-lacka, cha-cha-lacka” rise up in the clear dawn air. Other birds in the far distance join in the chorus and soon the noise surges up with increasing strength until finally it reaches an ear-splitting level.

This mass calling continues throughout the early hours of the day. At dusk or on moonlit nights the birds occasionally contribute a new noise to the nocturnal chirping, buzzing and hooting. As they flap and glide high above the tree tops, they make a raucous drumming and clattering with their wings. At other times, the cocrico can be seen walking gracefully among the thin branches of the tropical forest, searching out the fruits and tender leaves which constitute its diet.

This national bird also faces extinction through excessive and senseless hunting, combined with the destruction of its rain-forest habitat. Yet it has been known to thrive in scrubland and light woodland, and would even take to agricultural regions, provided that immediate measures were taken to ensure its protection.

The people of Trinidad and Tobago are proud of their national birds. Coins, currency notes, stamps, military insignia, government documents, blazers and dozens of tourist mementos all display the coat of arms. On the other hand, the magnificent annual three-day Carnival in Port of Spain includes costumes of great glamour, but never a feather from the national birds. The birds are held in such veneration that the islanders would never tolerate the plumes being seen anywhere except on the birds themselves.

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