Saving the Crested Ibis (Nipponia Nippon) from Near Extinction

Crested Ibis (Nipponia nippon) Fun Facts

Nipponia nippon Common Name: Crested ibis (in Japanese: toki)

Scientific Name: Nipponia nippon

Size and Appearance: The most distinctive feature of a crested ibis would be their white plumage. The bird’s head is bare from the top of its head to its beak and shows bright red skin. They also have a very long, narrow, and curved beak best for catching small fishes and animals.

Usually, the crested ibis is about 79 to 80 cm long and has a weight of about a kilogram for a fully grown adult. Female and male adults are very difficult to distinguish as both have the same size, color, and appearance.

Life Span: It has been observed that the crested ibis has an average lifespan of about 16 years. The longest that a specimen has lived in captivity is 26 years.

The survival rate of a crested ibis depends on the stage of its life. Only slightly more than 50% survival is recorded for crested ibis chicks. Only about 80% of lain eggs successfully hatch. After the first year of its life, mortality rate decreases to less than 20%. The longer the ibis lives, the higher the likability of its survival.

Habitat: Crested ibises are known to live in temperate regions in Asia. It used to be abundant in many parts of China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and even Russia. These birds are known to live in terrestrial regions like mountains and forests. They are also commonly found near marshes and swamps.

These birds are known to feed on small animals and small fishes which is why foraging in water abundant areas are common. Often times, these birds are seen foraging for food in rice paddies since wetlands are not so common due to human habitation.

Distribution: What is interesting about this animal is the fact it was originally thought as extinct prior 1981. It was only when about seven birds were seen in the wild somewhere in Shaanxi, China that new hopes for breeding these birds were possible. According to the latest survey of Birdlife International in the early 2000s, there are roughly less than 100 birds in the wild in China and less than 50 birds in Japan’s wild.

Current Status: Still, this particular species of bird is considered regionally extinct. This is due to the fact that it has died out in places where they used to be abundant. In the recent decades, its status improved from ‘Extinct’ to ‘Critically Endangered’ when a handful of wild birds were found in a province in China. Now, in other parts of the world where there are still crested ibises in the wild, their status further improved to ‘Endangered’ in the past decade. This means that their population in the wild is increasing. Hopefully, in the decades to come, the abundance of crested ibises in Asia’s wilderness will further improve.

Details about the Nipponia Nippon

How were they discovered?

These birds, because of their abundance in the past, was discovered in the early 1800s. It was first recorded in history in the year 1835 by a scientist named Temminck. During this time, this particular species of birds were abundant in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, and even some parts of Russia. They are known to have originated from certain provinces of China. In the latter part of the 1800s, the London Zoo was known to keep crested ibises in their care for the Western world to see.

By Danielinblue [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What are their distinct features?

These particular birds are well-known for their white plumage. What makes them unique is the fact that they have a pinkish hue whenever they fly. They have a bare red head which changes color during the mating season. Their neck is short and their heads have long, narrow feathers at the top of their heads. This is known as the mane which has a special, and unique, function during the mating season.

Their beak is long, thin, and curved which is colored black. What makes their beaks special and unique from other birds is the fact that its tips are bright red. Their eyes are known to have red irises with yellow rings, somewhat typical for many species of birds. Their legs, colored red as well, are also quite distinct because of their webs, this is an indication that they can swim in shallow water.

Where do they live?

The normal habitat of this species of bird is wetlands due to the fact that their primary diet consists of small aquatic organisms. Through time, the effect of human habitation in certain areas has affected the living situation of these birds. They were forced to take on higher grounds and live in other terrestrial biomes like forests and mountains. These birds also rely on other “water-like” surroundings like small ponds, rice paddies, and the marshes.

By Brown-shippings [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

How do they behave?

The behavior of the crested ibis depended on their origin. In the earlier times, it was recorded that ibises from Russia and Japan are migratory. This means that they change habitats when severe changes in temperature are experienced. However, in China, these birds are known to be territorial which means that they occupy the same region for all their lives.

What do they eat?

Majority of this bird’s diet consists of freshwater organisms like carp, eels, river crabs, mussels, and catfish. They are also known to feed on small insects like crickets and beetles. They are also known to feed on earthworms. This is why it is common to find these birds in abundance near wetlands. However, changes in the environment due to human habitation has forced these birds to adjust to rice paddies as well. Because of these, these birds are known to have included rice in their diet. Other plant foods include nuts, seeds, and different grains.

By けんち (photograph) / Hisagi(氷鷺) (trimming & upload) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

When they are foraging for food, they are often found with their feet on the muddy water. They will use their long, thin beaks to probe the mud for food while slowly walking through. They will use their beaks to catch their food, shake it several times before they are swallowed.

How do they reproduce?

According to researchers about the Nipponia Nippon, it was found that these birds are monogamous. This means that they will have only one mate in their lifetime. The bond of a male and female pair is strengthened through what is known as allopreening where they gently nibble at each other’s beak.

During the mating season, these birds can be classified as either breeding or non-breeding birds. This means that there are some birds which prefer not to breed while others do so. What is even more special about the crested ibis is the fact that their heads are known to change color from white to grey at this time while the rest of their bodies remain the same – this is known as the nuptial plumage. Those birds who change color are known to be breeding birds while those that do not change color are known to be non-breeding birds.  A tar-like substance is excreted from a special gland in their neck area. This process is known as “daubing” which usually happen during the wintertime.

After this, the actual courtship happens in January when the male birds start looking for possible nesting materials. Once they have a potential material, they will flaunt it in front of the female as if proving his capability to provide. In the case that the female rejects the material, the male bird will be carrying it until another female accepts it. Once the female bird accepts the material, the two birds will approach each other, touch their beaks and start their allopreening after which they will copulate.

How were they saved from extinction?

Before the 1980s, this particular species of wild birds were considered extinct in all parts of the world. All of the wild crested ibises died out in Japan’s wilderness in the early 2000s. This means that it is considered regionally extinct. Only captive birds remain alive and wild birds can only be seen in some parts of China. When a handful of birds were found in the wilderness of China, zoologists, and conservation experts have done what they can to proliferate the population of the crested ibises not only in China but in other parts of Asia as well.

They have tried captive breeding to increase the number of crested ibises in the wild. They were added to the State Protection List of China to ban all forms of hunting and trapping of these birds. It was in 2002 when the first successful artificial incubation of these birds was accomplished.

In 2008, these birds were reintroduced to the Japanese wilderness with the help of the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Preservation Center. About 10 birds were released in the Sado Island of Japan. In the next seven years, a total of 60 birds have been released into the wild. Soon, the birds started to reproduce on their own. It was in 2012 when the first crested ibis chick was naturally hatched in the wild for the last four decades.  

Nowadays, these birds are increasing in abundance in the province of Shaanxi in China. Their number also started to increase in Sado Island in Japan for the past decade. Roughly, there are less than a hundred birds in Japan and more than 200 in China.

Usually, a clutch size of a female ibis would be an average of three eggs. These eggs are bluish to greyish in color. What is good about this is that both sexes will incubate the nest for a month or so. What is unique about this species of birds is that both parents take equal parts in not only incubating but also caring for the offspring. They are responsible for building nests, incubating, feeding, and fledging of the chicks. These birds are not solitary individuals compared to other birds. Once hatched, the chicks will be fed with food regurgitated from both parents and they will remain in their parents’ care for roughly forty-five days but will remain near the nest for the next five months.

Threats to the life of the Crested Ibis

There are a number of factors affecting the number of crested ibises in the wild. Majority of this would be human intervention. The rapid loss of habitats for these birds has significantly affected their number as marshes and wetlands are not common as they used to be. Another threat to their population would be winter starvation which has pushed their figures to a record low in the past century.

By Stephen Lody Photography [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Another common problem which has caused the critically low population of the crested ibis would be the fact that it had very little range. This means that their colonies, or population, are limited and concentrated on small areas. Because their ranges are too small, there is not much chance for dispersion or distribution. A single event could easily wipe out the entire population of these birds. Inter-breeding with other species could significantly affect the gene integrity of this species and may produce different versions of this bird.

Predation is also a common problem for these small birds. Enough information indicates that its common predators include mammals like weasels, amphibians like ratsnakes, and even other birds like eagles and crows.

Conservation Efforts to protect the Crested Ibis

Because these birds can be considered as if they were brought back to life, there is an international effort to breed, reproduce, and reintroduce these birds. Although it could only be found in East Asian countries, there is widespread support from all over the world to improve its number. One of the best ways which were done by scientists was to create captive breeding techniques which involved artificial incubation of eggs. Also, international laws and regulations controlling hunting and trapping of these birds are developed.

These birds are now closely monitored to aid them during a catastrophe and even natural calamities like starvation due to lack of food. In these events, rice paddies, swamps, and marshes are re-populated with food that they can hunt. Nests are also protected from predators to increase the likability of hatching success of eggs. This is in hopes of further increasing their populations.