What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VIII)

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) Image via WildlifeExtra.com

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)
Image via WildlifeExtra.com

When I first wrote about the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) two years ago, the civil conflict in Syria had already been wreaking havoc on citizens and landscape for over 24 months. It was suspected that chemical weapons had been used on civilians, and historical monuments were being destroyed.

A bit of good news was that a tiny breeding group of northern bald ibis, once common around the Mediterranean and thought to have been extinct, had been discovered near Palmyra and was quietly expanding. One female, dubbed Zenobia, was still making the annual migratory crossing to Ethiopia. By the time I wrote my post in May 2013, she was the lone survivor of the group.

Back in May 2013, few had yet heard of a group calling themselves Islamic State of Iraq. Now this group, known as ISIS or DAESH, is notorious around the world for its expansion, media savvy, extreme brutality and wanton destruction, dismantling and sale of historical treasures.

The group captured the town of Palmyra this week and has been subjecting the place and its inhabitants to deplorable atrocities.

Amongst all this horror, the  guards assigned to protect four captive breeding ibis disappeared, as have the birds.

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

Meanwhile, Zenobia herself hasn’t been spotted. Even if the captive birds are recovered, if they are ever to be set free in the wild they will need a guide to the wintering grounds. Without Zenobia, they will remain captive. If they are found, of course.

As I wrote in my previous post, “The ibis was considered to be one of the first birds released by Noah off the Ark as a symbol of fertility, and in ancient Egypt the bird symbolized excellence, glory, honour, and virtue, as well as the signifier of the soul.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon told the BBC  that the species could go extinct in the wild in Syria.

Zenobia, the last wild ibis who knows the way to Ethiopia, was named for 3rd-century Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a warrior queen who successfully protected Palmyra for many years against Roman expansion.

“Culture and nature they go hand in hand, and war stops, but nobody can bring back a species from extinction,” said head of the society Asaad Serhal.

Here’s hoping Zenobia takes after her namesake and returns to hold back the tide.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra
Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

On a slightly more encouraging note: A project is underway in Europe to reintroduce the ibis 300 years after it went extinct in the region. But the challenges faced by that project underline how important it is to prevent local extinction in the first place.



Flyways and Wetland Rotation

Flock of snow geese on unflooded farmland in Skagit ValleyPhoto: Mesa Schumacher

Flock of snow geese on unflooded farmland in Skagit Valley
Photo: Mesa Schumacher

Farmland gain across the world often means habitat loss of wetlands – important habitats for migratory birds. An interesting project proposed adding an old crop to the regular rotation on a number of farms originally won from deltas and estuaries: namely, the crop of water. I picture a watery mosaic in flux, with changing colors of visiting bird flocks instead of green grains. It’s easy to forget that less than a century ago, many of the areas we now associate with large farms were plains and deltas.

For some farms along well-known migratory bird flyways, farmers agree to let their fields flood as part of a yearly crop succession, rather than trying to keep the fields dry and/or irrigated year-round. The migratory birds are provided with link in a geographic chain, allowing them to land and feed. What’s interesting is that the farmers gain, as well. The flooding has led to increased nutrients in the ground, a reduction in weeds, and overall soil improvement.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which initiated the plan in cooperation with a consortium of partners, worked together with farmers in the Skagit Valley, Washington. In California’s Central Valley, TNC purchased farmland for the wetland experiment. The plan doesn’t work for all kinds of fields, crops or farmers; for example, it works best in grain fields, but orchards and vineyards that have taken over old flyway areas aren’t suited for annual flooding. Still, many farmers have reported no net loss in having a water crop in their rotation, and overall satisfaction with the routine.

In the Skagit Valley, Washington, over a dozen species of shorebirds have returned to land and feed on migratory routes lost to them during the course of the 20th century. Similar projects are underway elsewhere around the world.


The Nature Conservancy: Farming for Wildlife (Washington State)

National Geographic articles: Field flooding in California here and in Washington State here