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A crested ibis was presented to the Japanese people Oct. 13 by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. As an ornithologist, I was excited by the news, and it recalled my visits to the nesting area in Sanchahe Valley, a nature reserve for the crested ibis in Yang County, Shanxi Province.

Yu Yu, a crested ibis at the Sado Toki Center, where efforts are being made to re-establish the ibis in Japan using birds supplied by China.

It was 1998, during the breeding period (early March to May), when I crossed the mountains to get to Sanchahe. The valley lies at 1,100 meters and is to the west of Laofenshan (“old tomb hill”), where spears of barbed wild grass flourish and 36 old qinggang trees stand over 30 meters tall. Nearby are paddy fields, full of water most of the year, and many streams where loaches and other small fish, shrimp, frogs and freshwater mussels thrive — all the foods an ibis likes best. The environment at Sanchahe is a stable breeding area for the ibis.

Yong Shuisheng and Gen Zhuizong, of the staff of the Sanchahe Reserve, accompanied me on the climb up Laofenshan. A pair of ibises had built a nest on a thick branch about 30 meters up tree No. 25 and laid four eggs, three of which just hatched. On arriving I saw a big grass-green nylon net spread out under the tree in case any nestlings fell out. In a thatched hut at the foot of the tree, a man kept watch at night to scare off stoats, snakes and other enemies of the ibis.

The wooded mountain was luxuriant with fresh greenery and the colors of spring; streams of light struck like fire through the oak woods, and yellow, purple and silver-white mists of various shapes hung in the air. As we admired the view, a local farmer came to report one of the ibises looking for food in his field.

It was quite large, about 80 cm long, arching its back as it strolled in the water. We could clearly see its long, curved black bill tipped with red, the thin, loose crest, vermilion cheeks and snow-white feathers.

Suddenly, it made a single peck at the water, clamped a hapless loach in its bill, then washed it clean in the water. Perhaps startled by light reflecting off my camera from where we hid in the thick grass, it took several steps and flew off, skimming over the dark-green rice seedling bed and verdant hill.

The pair of ibises had entered the busiest, most crucial stage of parenthood: raising the nestlings. While one parent looked after the chicks, the other searched the wetlands for food. The appetites of the growing nestlings were sharp, and loaches in short supply. Sometimes the birds would fly over the peaks to search other fields 3-5 km off.

As soon as the hunter would return with food, the nestlings would flap their wings and fight to get a share of the regurgitated loach from its beak. The eldest nestling used its larger body to its advantage and pecked and nipped the others until their beaks drooped. The other two got little or nothing.

Chinese ornithologist Zhang Zhiyen (center) and staff members at Sanchahe Reserve with the ibis nestlings they rescued.

Each breeding season the ibises struggle to find food, and it is unlikely for all in a brood to survive. Sure enough, a few days later one of the three nestlings died of starvation, and in the Guniuping nesting area about 30 km away, three others faced a similar plight.

The problem was urgent, and we were all worried about them. Gen and Yong reported the situation to their supervisor by radio and requested permission to take some of the nestlings and feed them artificially. The request was approved by the national forestry department, and we removed the weaker nestling from Sanchahe and two from the nest in Guniuping.

We kept the nestlings in bamboo chicken coops borrowed from the villagers. Hearing the cries of the little birds, we felt honored to join the fight to save the ibis, which is one of the rarest birds in the world.

We had fresh, live loaches brought in, but at first it proved very hard for us to get the nestlings to feed. The chicks were very weak and had never seen living food, so they couldn’t cope with the slick and wriggling fish.

Yong and Gen cut a loach in pieces and tried patiently to get them to eat, but the chicks didn’t know how to peck. Yong and Gen realized that the little birds were used to sucking their food from their parents’ crops as if through a pipe, and this gave them an idea. One of us put his two hands together like a beak and placed a piece of loach inside. When offered to the nestlings this way, they found the food. It was a great breakthrough and saved the babies.

We weighed them, took their temperatures and fed them five times a day. Two of them recovered quickly; the youngest took longer.

It was in very poor health when it arrived; its temperature was 35 c, 7 C below the normal 42 C. We lit a stove to warm it, and Yong used his down coat to wrap it up in and nursed it at night. In fine weather, we took the nestling out to get as much sunshine as possible. In due course it stood up. As this youngest nestling grew, so did the affection between us.

Soon we were putting the loaches in a basin of water at feeding time. When we banged on the basin, the baby ibises would rush to it and jump to grab at the loaches with beaks and talons, usually upsetting the basin in the process.

Our anxiety had turned to joy. To mark the end of a successful ibis-raising attempt, the three of us took the baby ibises in our arms for a rare and significant picture.