Bin Chickens: The Sadder Side Of Guardian’s ‘Almost Bird Of The Year’

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A competition to find Australia’s favourite feathered friend helped unite bird lovers and newbies alike. But there’s a serious side to it as well, writes Catherine McLeod.

“Is there one bird that reigns supreme in the hearts and minds of the public?” was the question posed by the Guardian Australia to its audience. The publication, in partnership with BirdLife Australia, sought this year to discover Australia’s favourite bird by way of an online poll that attracted 150,000 votes. The magpie emerged victorious, but the surprising runner up should be celebrated; the Australian white ibis.

Australia has an abundance of beautiful, native birds, many of which conjure fond memories; looking up at sulphur crested cockatoos perched on a ghostly eucalypt branch against an azure sky, or at the lorikeet-filled plane trees on a suburban street. Watching in wonder as a resplendent king parrot chose your small hand to eat seed from. Hearing the croak of a galah, the cackle of a kookaburra or the warbling of a magpie.

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From a shortlist of 51 finalists, the public could vote to determine the ultimate favourite. Candidates included the aforementioned, as well as stalwarts like the emu, little penguin and wedge tailed eagle.

The beloved Australian magpie. (IMAGE: Steve Bittinger, Flickr)
The beloved Australian magpie. (IMAGE: Steve Bittinger, Flickr)

The people spoke, and the magpie won, with 19,926 votes. Each contestant’s tally was obscured during the final week of polling, though before the counters were hidden the Australian white ibis had been the frontrunner. The widely slandered “bin chicken” took an unexpected early lead, but ended up coming in second at 19,083.

Those who had supported the ibis and rallied behind the TeamBinChicken hashtag were understandably disappointed, but for the maligned ibis to beat over 50 other birds and come runner up by only 843 votes is still impressive.

The system of voting was simple, participants could vote once via a singular click, after reading a short bio of each of the contenders. If there was a particular favourite that did not appear on the list, voters could submit their preferred species’ name.

The Guardian specified that Birdy McBirdface would not be considered as an option, though voting for the ibis, the ostensible underdog, has a touch of Boaty anyway.

A white ibis pictured in Brisbane. (IMAGE: Dave Curtis, Flickr)
A white ibis pictured in Brisbane. (IMAGE: Dave Curtis, Flickr)

The Australian white ibis, Threskiornis molucca, has garnered a lot of negative press over the years. These unkempt birds frequently inhabit urban spaces, predominantly in Brisbane and Sydney, where they forage in human waste and live on the streets and in back gardens. Though their natural diet is one of invertebrates, including crayfish and mussels, they have become adept at rummaging through our scraps to find food, or eating grubs from lawns.

But the plight of the ibis is of our own making. Its taxonomy as an inner-city pest, or feathered rat as styled by some commentators, is a result of the overwhelming loss of its natural habitat in the Murray-Darling Basin. Colonial infrastructure and urban expansion, particularly in the 1970s, diminished their wetland homes and forced them to move. New research has revealed an almost 70% decline in the Murray-Darling Basin’s water birds over the past 30 years.

Australian white ibis adapted surprisingly well to their new homes in the cities, where they use their bills to slice open plastic bags containing landfill or beg passers-by for food. Annoying, yes, but it was humans who first supplied the food and damaged their homes.

Other bird species have made the move to metropolitan areas, as widespread habitat clearing has compelled them to find new food sources. Birds like the rainbow lorikeet, regent honeyeater and crow have all adapted to city life, but increasing urbanisation will mean less diversity, as only those who can acclimatize will survive.

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Even though voting for the ibis reveals a light-hearted take on the poll, the ballot succeeded in uniting the bird-loving community with the less invested. Australia’s native, feathered creatures were on the minds of the public, if only briefly. Ideally this consciousness would continue post-competition, particularly for those birds we are increasingly cohabiting with.

An ibis imagined is often perched on the corner of a dumpster, poking its long, spindly beak through the garbage, or swiping a sandwich from the hands of an unsuspecting picnic goer.

Irksome and unrefined, perhaps, but we should be mindful of the fact that they have no other home to go to.

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Cat McLeod

Cat McLeod is an editor and research assistant at RMIT University.

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