JOHANNESBURG – Pest, charming oddity or just background noise, the Hadeda ibis is a feathered phenomenon in suburban South Africa.
Sometimes it swipes dog food meant for pets, splatters parked cars and driveways with droppings and yanks residents from sleep with jarring squawks at first light.
It is not an endangered species and its feathers are a drab gray or brown, so it's not on a bird lover bucket list. But the bird now has a small niche in popular culture. Some lodges and restaurants carry its name, a website offers a ringtone download of its cry and a pair of South African musicians produced a song called: "Harry the hungry Hadeda."
The name hadeda is said to be onomatopoeic, an imitation of its raucous cry. Some call it a "flying vuvuzela," recalling the din of the plastic horn used by stadium fans during the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa in 2010. Found in sub-Saharan Africa, the Hadeda ibis is a somewhat unruly cousin of the African Sacred Ibis, which was revered in ancient Egypt.
The bird's regional population increased in the last century, but the numbers really took off in the past couple of decades with more irrigation in gardens, golf courses and other green spaces in Johannesburg, Cape Town and some other cities. Many tall trees, ideal for nesting, also reached full height after being planted long ago.
"They have colonized cities more and more," said Res Altwegg, a Swiss citizen and an associate professor of statistics at the University of Cape Town who has used his mountain-climbing experience to reach numerous nests as part of a hadeda research project. "They realize that they can take advantage of urban habitats."
Fortunately, this is not a scenario from "The Birds," the Alfred Hitchcock movie in which birds attack humans. The hadeda prefers to probe and pluck worms and crickets from soft earth with its scythe-like beak. Its vaguely prehistoric features are reminiscent of the illustrations of Edward Gorey, author of "The Osbick Bird" and other quirky tales.
Some ornithologists credit the hadeda's dietary preferences with curbing the population of the "Parktown Prawn," a king cricket named after a Johannesburg suburb that can creep or leap into homes at night, horrifying residents. The hadeda, in turn, has few natural predators in cities, facing instead the lesser peril of flying into windows or getting hit by a car, said Ernst Retief, a regional conservation manager for BirdLife South Africa, a conservation group.
"We've created an ideal habitat for them," Retief said.
The animal demography unit of the University of Cape Town compiled a color-coded map of South Africa that shows hadeda distribution, based on birdwatcher data since 2007, has become more common.
In Johannesburg, the bird feasts in lush lawns and breeds in towering trees that replaced indigenous grasslands in a city described as a man-made forest. This is only one slice of a city and society marred by economic inequality. Two decades after the end of white minority rule, many areas previously designated for blacks only remain poor, crowded and lacking in adequate services, unlike tree-lined suburbs where sprinklers keep grass fresh, even during dry spells.
A hadeda nickname is "la-di-da," a poke at what some view as the hoity-toity airs of suburbanites who share their green spaces with the bird.
Affluent residents in South Africa tend to live in fenced areas, some of which are sprawling "eco-estates" that draw bird and other species to the secure environments within city limits, according to Nicci Wright, senior animal manager at FreeMe, a rehabilitation center for indigenous wildlife in Johannesburg.
FreeMe gets its share of hadedas in distress, some of which suffer during winter months when the ground is hard and food is scarce.
The Hadeda ibis can't measure up to the stately Blue Crane, the national bird of South Africa, or the Secretary bird, whose raised-wing image adorns the country's coat of arms. But it inspires humor. One blogger posted a tongue-in-cheek recipe for a hadeda meal that ends: "Continue with the (cooking) process until the cast iron pot becomes tender, then throw away the hadeda and eat the pot."
Urban legend says a hadeda makes its grating call because it is terrified of flying.
Altwegg, the associate professor, said he once found a hadeda with a broken wing in his garden. It stayed there in its twilight years, eating dog food and fending off smaller birds that tried to pilfer from its bowl. The injured hadeda never flew again.
"It almost never made any sound," Altwegg said.