SundayLife!, 22 March 1998

Frankly, the bird's a tart

Paul McDermott has nothing but disdain for the once-proud ibis.

W hite feathers brown-grey from the muck and grime of the city. A tiny blackened head foraging for scraps. Its elegant beak pinpointing morsels that shorter-beaked birds cannot reach.
It is superior animal in every repsect and it is rewarded for this evolutionary gift with a half-eaten egg and bacon sandwich still wrapped in plastic.

Several readers know of my loathing for the cockraoch; few are aware of my deep and uncontrollable hatred of the ibis. Hatred fuelled by sadness. How could this bird have fallen so far?

The ibis, treasured bird of ancient Egypt, who posessed a special relationship with the gods. The ibis, who inspired the Greek poets Ovid and Callimachus. The ibis, Colleridge's second choice for the albatross, and a friend of the phoenix. This once magical bird has fallen further and harder than any other.
Maybe it happened when the ibis swapped the banks of the Nile for the sewage outlets of Bondi. Perhaps when it left the Tigis and Euphrates, the home of civilisation, and settled for the corner of Victoria and Darlinghurst Streeet, the home of the cappuccino
One thing is true. The proud bird that left the drifting sands of the mystic East is not the same one that arrived penniless in the Antipodes. The ibis has become a vagrant, a hobo, a bum. The only difference is the ibis doesn't have a shopping cart to push around.
If you get close enough to one to smell its breath, it even reeks of turps. Somehow the ibis has become the Robert Downey Jnr. of the heron family. A gifted creature with an assured future, who now stalks the back streets covered in crap. A shadow of its former self, desperately in need of rehab - Robert, not the ibis.
My eyes first alighted on the bird in a book on Tutankhamen. I was trying to complete a school assignment on interbreeding, false gods, water on the brain and pyramids - when there stood the ibis.
A divine creature with a swan-like neck and stark white feathers. Its noble profile carved by long-dead artisans into stone. A bird with a living body and a tiny mummified head. The more I looked, the more the ibis stared back at me from the pages of history.
Its sacred image shaped with lapis lazuli, pressed into metal, etched into the walls of Cheops. Those papyrus readers loved that bird. In the old world the ibis knew Osiris and Horace, the gods of ancient Eqypt, and roamed free in the gardens of Rameses abd Cleopatra. You can tell a lot about a bird by the company it keeps.
These days the ibis is most often seen in the comapny of pigeons (the rats of the air) and seagulls (the pigeons of the sea). I have no idea what goes on in the mind of the ibis; it may think the other birds look up to it. It's like the big dumb kid at school who hit puberty first, the kid you sent in the get the fags and booze.
The truth is that the only reason those mongrels hang around is to fee on the scraps the ibis drops. These scavengers are using the ibis, and the dwarf stork is too stupid to figure it out. So there it stands, a moronic featherhead Fagin surrounded by an assortment of winged rats and sea-birds. And thereby hangs a tale ...
A tiger, a fox and an ibis met one night in the jungle. The tiger said, "I have these stripes to conceal me in the forest." The fox said, "I have these eyes to help me see at night." The ibis said, "I have this really long beak to get to all that good stuff at the bottom of the bin."
What a gift. What immortal hand or eye framed that one? Here's a long bill used for probing mud for soft molluscs or for hunting through garbage to find a mouldy felafel fused to cigarette butts and lemonade. And here are some long legs to help you wade through water or give you a height advantage when you're raiding the bins.
And so ends a moral story: the ibis is the ugly duckling who grew up to discover it was just a duck, and an ugly duck at that. Where the phoenix rose from the ashes, the ibis rolls around in them, which serves to remind us of the price you pay when you fall from the heavens.
-Typed up by VellaB.