From god‑head to bin chook: Ibis in the Australian cultural imagination

From the early 1970s, driven by drought and degradation of interior wetlands, the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis moluccus) began migrating to the nation’s coastal cities, towns and inland centres from north Queensland through to Perth. Ibis have flourished in urban spaces, where there is a ready food supply guaranteed by our endemic over‑consumption. Their robust colonisation and presence has garnered the bird a reputation as unwelcome pests and interlopers, reflected in the quotidian idiom: dumpster diver, flying rat, tip turkey, pest of the sky, trash vulture, dump chook, bin chicken, bin chook.
As their vernacular names suggest, the much‑maligned ibis has achieved an ambivalent status in the Australian imagination, ranging from disparagement and disgust to a begrudging admiration and affection for their tenacity and adaptability in the urban‑wilds of Australian cities. The iconic representation of the ibis is also historically and ecologically significant as the Australian White Ibis is a sister species of the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus). Though extinct in Egypt today, the Sacred Ibis enjoyed an exalted status in ancient Egypt, whereby the God Djehuty or Thoth was often portrayed with an ibis head, and ibis themselves were commonly mummified. Australian artists have picked up on these genetic and cultural resonances to engage in the bird’s evolving and precarious celebrity status as it occupies our urban–suburban waterways and built environment.

The flourishing Australian White Ibis featured prominently in Something Else is Alive: Sydney and the Animal Instinct at Sydney’s Customs House at Circular Quay. This exhibition explored the paradox of Australia’s largest city characterised as being both “deeply urbane yet paradoxically wild.” Grappling with this ambivalent and symbiotic relationship, Mechelle Bounpraseuth’s comical ceramic diorama Late Night Maccas Run with Bae (2017) featured an ibis, a seagull and a pigeon foraging among cigarette butts, stale bread and discarded McDonalds French fries and fast‑food packaging. While the exhibition featured domesticated animals, it was the local wildlife, including film footage of a Peregrine Falcon eating its prey on a skyscraper window‑ledge, that offered useful insights into how animals negotiate city spaces and challenge concepts of wild(er)ness and habitat.

Buy   or   Subscribe   or   Login