Henry and Harriet

28Feb
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Despite their proximity - they have set up home within ten metres of our living-room windows - and their at times anti-social behaviour - they are given to littering, and in the early hours of the morning to calling to one another at the tops of their voices – we really are rather pleased with our new neighbours. Not having as yet been formally introduced, we refer to them as Henry and Harriet, but we do know that they are more correctly known as Hadeda Ibis, or Bostrychia hagedash. .

Hadedas – so named in imitation of their raucous call – are flourishing in southern Africa, an example of how species that are able to adapt to changing environmental circumstances have a head start over any rivals that are more set in their ways. All the ibises – there are also Sacred, Bald and Glossy Ibises - have long, scimitar-shaped beaks with which they forage in damp ground, mud-flats or shallow water. Hadedas always favoured the eastern grass-lands of the country, but over the years have extended their range westwards, and more recently have moved into the cities, where they are now to be found hunting for food in suburban gardens. Although we live in what once was a comparatively rural area, it is only within the last decade that we have seen Hadedas in the surrounding countryside, and only during the last three years that they have become regular visitors to our garden. There they delve with their tactile beaks for worms and insects, and rid the garden of snails and myriapods.

At one time all the ibises were classed as Threskiornithidae, a name derived from the Greek, and meaning 'religious bird.' This applied in particular to the so-called Sacred Ibis, a large white bird with black head and neck, which was considered by the ancient Egyptians to be a reincarnation of the god of wisdom. It is possibly the best known of all the ibises, for it is to be found almost world-wide, although no longer in Egypt. The Bald Ibis, with its bright red head and beak is equally striking, and even the Glossy Ibis, as its name suggests, although less eye-catching than the previous two, is more immediately conspicuous than the apparently dull, dark grey Hadeda. But take a closer look. There is a greenish, metallic bronze sheen to the plumage of the Hadeda, and the wing and tail feathers show a very dark purple. The splendour is more muted, more upper-crust dare one say, but every bit as impressive as its distant cousins.

But it is the call of the Hadeda that is unmistakable. The other ibises are very largely silent although emitting groans, squeals or moans while nesting. Not so the Hadedas. Every morning Henry and Harriet greet the dawn with joyful cries of “Ha-ha-hadeda,” and whenever leaving their roost, or when disturbed while foraging, the cry is repeated. Throughout the day we hear them and their friends passing overhead while emitting their stentorian cries, and when in the evening they return to their roosts, the cry is again taken up. There are people, particularly those who are not early risers, who find the call of the Hadeda an almost unbearable intrusion, but we tend to agree with an elderly gentleman of our acquaintance who remarked that he welcomed their dawn chorus. “I like to hear their racket in the morning. I know then that I'm still alive.”

In our part of the country the Hadedas tend to breed during the summer months, but we have noticed that Henry and Harriet, despite it being only September, have been making some preliminary arrangements as regards the gathering of sticks, and the investigation of suitable forks in the tree. We are not sure whether they are perhaps novices trying to acquire the necessary skills, or just fooled by unseasonably warm weather. There are in fact other possibilities, for Harriet, or the one we presume to be Harriet, diligently collects sticks and takes them up to the fork in the coral tree that they favour, while Henry, when her back is turned, picks them up and discards them. It has been suggested that this is typical male behaviour, allowing one's wife to do all the hard work while at the same time disparaging her efforts, but It struck me that there was another possible explanation. Perhaps it is Henry, eager to start a family, who is doing all the stick collecting, while Harriet, not yet ready to abandon her freedom and take up the responsibilities of motherhood, is destroying Henry's attempts to establish a happy home. We hope that they will resolve their differences, and that we will be able to look forward to a happy event this summer.

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