The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #83: Identify Your First Ibis

Beware: We have three species, and two of them can be really confusing.

The first time I ever saw an ibis was in third grade when we were studying the ancient Egyptians. There were all kinds of cool animals depicted as gods in the hieroglyphics: falcons, owls, crocodiles, cats and . . .  a small-headed, long-billed, bird-type thing that I didn’t recognize and had a funny name: “Ibis.” Next to those other gods, I thought, this one wasn’t quite as impressive.

I didn’t even know we had ibis in this country until I was a birder, let alone three different species. They are the White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, and White-faced Ibis, and they range throughout the U.S. Depending where you live, I recommend you pick one, go find it, and then decide for yourself if they’re a worthy deity.

No matter which species you’re after, the best place to start is a wetland. Related to herons and storks, ibis are aquatic waders that feed by probing mud and soil for little water-based goodies. Their relatively large size (about that of Snowy Egret or night-heron) and long, thin, down-curved bill is enough to separate an ibis from just about any other bird. (Except maybe a Long-billed Curlew, but they’ve got like reeeallly long, thin bills, and are big and brown in a way that ibis aren’t.)

But once you’ve got an ibis, how do you know which one you’re looking at? Well, that's why we're here. Let’s start with the White Ibis, because it is by far the easiest to identify.

White Ibis are one of those birds in the field guide that are just labeled “unmistakeable.” Such proclamations tend to make me nervous (I can usually find a way to screw up an ID), but White Ibis are a pretty safe bet. About the size of a duck on stilts, White Ibis are white (duh) with bright red legs and a bright red bill. Adults have black wing tips that are clearly evident in flight. It’s a pretty bird.

Juvenile White Ibis are a little trickier, with a brownish back, bill, and neck. But the white underwings and rump are a giveaway that you’re not looking at anything else.

White Ibis are common in Florida and along the Gulf and Carolina coasts. In fact, White Ibis have elevated to a god-like status in South Florida. Rather than in hieroglyphics, though, these birds are worshipped on the football field as the official mascot for the University of Miami Hurricanes. Apparently, the students learned from “folklore” that the White Ibis is “known for its bravery as a hurricane approaches” and “uses its instinct to detect danger,” being the last of the wildlife to take shelter when a storm hits and the first to emerge when it’s over.

That is . . . uh . . . That is all hooey. White Ibis aren’t any better or worse than any other species at protecting themselves from hurricanes, and the most definitely aren't, as the University of Miami claims, a bird that “other birds look to for leadership.” Still, I love to see the fighting White Ibis mascot named Sebastian on the sidelines, even if the costume is an absolute, duck-billed, non-ibis monstrosity.

White-faced Ibis in nonbreeding plumage. The bright pink patch of skin on its face and red eye distinguishes it from the Glossy Ibis. Photo: Patty McGann/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Our other two ibis species, Glossy and White-faced, aren't as revered as the White Ibis, but they still deserve our respect—and an extra close look. These two species are strikingly similar in appearance, and they can be difficult to separate without a thorough inspection.

Fortunately, mixing the two up is often easy to avoid because their ranges are mostly separate (they both breed on the Gulf Coast and wander into the Midwest). The White-faced Ibis is the more widespread of the two, breeding regularly throughout the West. The Glossy Ibis is an Atlantic Coast species found from Maine to Florida and frequently along the Gulf Coast to Louisiana. That said, you need to be prepared: Wayward individuals of both species regularly show up in each others’ ranges, so every birder should know how to tell them apart.

The bodies, as lovely as they are, aren’t going to help you. Both of these species have shiny green and purple plumage that, like European Starlings, can look kinda dingy until it catches the right light. When it does it’s stunning, like a little oily rainbow. Appreciate that, and then move on. 

The key to identifying these birds is in the face. You’ve probably pieced together by now that the White-faced Ibis has a white face, but that's not really helpful because the Glossy Ibis also has white in its face. Or, at least, bluish white. The pale markings on the face can be confusing, so to nail the ID you have to keep looking.

Both species have bare skin on the face, between the eye and the bill, surrounded by normally feathered areas. Breeding White-faced Ibis have a broad band of white feathers surrounding the bare facial skin, and that skin is bright pink, encircling a red eye. Glossy Ibis have no white on the feathers of the face: instead, the border of the facial skin is a very pale blue in breeding season, and the rest of the bare skin is dark gray, encircling a dark eye.

Nonbreeding birds are tougher. The White-faced will lose its rim of white feathers and the bright pink skin will turn dull red, but it will retain a deep red eye. (Two of them, in fact.) Alternatively, Glossy Ibis have dark eyes and gray facial skin in all plumages. First winter birds of both species are a real challenge, and are maybe best left identified as “ibis species.” No one will mind. 
 
Since I first discovered the ibis all those years ago, I've learned that the ibis-headed deity, named Thoth, was the God of Knowledge, the Moon, Measurement, Wisdom, the Alphabet, Records, Thought, Intelligence, Meditation, the Mind, Logic, Reason, Reading, Hieroglyphics, Magic, Secrets, Scribes, and Writing. My goodness, that’s a lot of responsibility! American ibis species might not be quite as powerful as all that, but don't let that stop you from getting out there to find one of these special birds. 

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