When I moved to Hermanus some 25 years ago, I didn’t notice any Hadedas. They are hard not to notice. Of course, coming from Gauteng, we were all too aware of their raucous, onomatopoeic calling as they took off from or returned to their overnight roosts in trees.
Hadeda ibis – eBird
They were cursed for their dawn chorus (it’s hard to stay asleep through that din!) but also loved for the fact that they seemed to be the arch nemesis of the Parktown Prawn. If you are South African – and especially from Gauteng – you will know this insect.
Originally from Mpumalanga, the Parktown Prawn (Libanasidus vittatus) is believed to have moved down to the City of Gold in about 1960 in search of a better life, like many others who relocated to the city during that time. Trading the wild for the suburbs, the Parktown Prawn has thrived, finding a home in irrigated gardens away from most of the predators found in its natural habitat. From the wilds of Mpumalanga to the burbs of Johannesburg, the Parktown Prawn is truly living the ‘South African dream’.
Though many people see them as pests, the Parktown Prawn is actually a very helpful ally to the gardener; a friendly giant of sorts. This huge insect feeds on pests such as slugs, snails, and moth larvae such as cutworms. Just keep them away from your vegetables.
Parktown Prawn – Rentokil
However, these near-indestructible insects are not welcome indoors. Instead of shying away from people, they often jump at you, scaring the daylights out of the would-be captor. Furthermore, they eject offensive black faecal fluids when threatened. To add insult to injury, they also chew your carpets.
The formidable Parktown Prawn is actually a King cricket (an insect) and not related to a prawn (a crustacean) at all. They seem to instil panic in most people who meet them. The threat of putting a PP in my son’s bed was the only tactic that ever worked to get him out of it in the early morning. I remember clearly going through a whole day with my sock bunched up under my toes, only to discover when I took off my ‘tackies’ that it was a PP in my shoe! It coped with the incident better than I did!
The Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) is resident throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding deserts. In contrast to most other wildlife, they have increased their distribution range in southern Africa more than two-fold in the last century. This is largely as a result of human settlement. Humans plant trees, providing new nesting sites. Humans develop well-watered gardens, sport fields, golf courses and farmlands – and Hadedas need soft, moist soil to probe for food.
They plunge their long, curved bills into the soil. This is great news for gardens everywhere, as the Hadeda aerates the soil, so creating healthier environments for plants and keeping insect populations under control. They also eat snails and, of course, Parktown Prawns.
But how do Hadedas know where to probe? Is it a hit and miss situation? Not at all. Hadedas and other ibises have a secret superpower, also shared by kiwis and sandpipers. The tips of their beaks are threaded with cells that can detect vibrations traveling through the ground. Some birds can feel the movements of their distant quarry directly, while others pick up on waves bouncing off buried prey — echo-locating like a dolphin or a bat, in essence, through the earth.
Hadada Ibises roost in groups in trees. They fly out in the mornings with their characteristic loud calls and return in the evenings with regularity. The calls are probably a way of communicating with others in the family or flock. Despite their gregariousness, they are monogamous, solitary nesters, and are thought to form a life-long pair bond. The nest is an often haphazard platform of sticks and twigs in the fork of a tree, sometimes with a central bowl lined with grass, leaves and other soft plant material. The female lays two to four eggs, which are incubated by both parents. The chicks hatch about 24 days later and are fed by both parents until they are about two months old.
Although the Parktown Prawn has not yet appeared in the Western Cape, it’s good to know that we already have a secret weapon on standby – the good old annoyingly noisy Hadeda ibis.