All About the Japanese Crested Ibis: The Nipponia Nippon

All About the Japanese Crested Ibis

Photo: TokioMarineLife via Getty Images

The Crested Ibis is a big, white-plumed wading bird that lives in pine forests and is known for its distinctive crest. In addition to the red skin on its head, it bears an extensive white plume crest on the nape of its neck.

They were killed for their feathers. For the most part, they've vanished from their original range. Crested ibises were formerly common in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Russia.

Description and Appearance

All About the Japanese Crested Ibis

Photo: Masafumi Oishi via Getty Images

Japanese crested ibises measure just 56 cm in length compared to other crested ibises. The wings and tail of this bird are both long and curvy. The bird's white plumage has a pinkish cast when viewed from below when flying.

The beak is large and curved, black with a crimson tip, and has a black base. The bird's face is bare and crimson. A golden ring surrounds the eye, which has a red iris. The reddish-brown to brown legs have webbed toes and are rather short. The mane of slender feathers that hangs from the base of the neck also covers the short neck. The nape is adorned with a massive crest. While the remainder of the body remains the same, the head and upper body become gray during the breeding season.


Japanese crested ibises depend on wetlands for food. Other animals in their diet include fish, aquatic insects, crustaceans, and earthworms. Rice has been found in the stomach contents of the crested ibis. The use of loach as a survival supplement has also been successful in increasing overall survival rates.

The Japanese crested ibis feeds in swampy areas only a few feet deep (10 to 15 cm). Slowly, the ibises walk, their beaks probing the muck for food when they come upon it. Before swallowing, the food item is shaken many times in water.

Feeding along the mud walls of rice fields has also been seen. It is common for the bigger ibis to take the lead when a pair of ibises find a group of prey. A group of ibises will gather in the same general location to eat during the winter months.


Trees on slopes overlooking their environment are where they build their nests. A pair of Crested Ibises stay together all year long since they are a monogamous species. Breeding takes place from February to June, with each season producing a single clutch. Within 28 days, both parents incubate 3 to 4 eggs laid by the female.

Crested ibis chicks have light gray down and orange-red legs when they hatch. Within a month, they can move about the nest on branches. Young birds can fend for themselves from 45 days of age and are sexually mature at the age of two to four years old.

However, during the mating season, these sociable birds become reclusive and fiercely protective of their territory. To defend their nests from intruders, ibises may flap their wings. Also, stretch, snap and undertake or chase predators when they feel threatened. These birds are active throughout the day and spend most of their time resting, preening, or wading along coasts in search of food. It's not uncommon for crested ibises to produce a sequence of 'gak-gak-gak' cries when they're agitated. They will produce a low 'gak' to communicate with one other before flying.

The Crested ibis' head, chest, neck, and back become grey during the mating season—the bird's dispersion of waxy, tar-like material results in its unusual mating (nuptial) plumage. 'Daubing' is the term used to describe this. In the head and neck, the chemical is expelled through specialized skin. The daubing period begins immediately before formal sexual activity in the winter.


Nesting and roosting places for the Asian Crested Ibis are found in locations with large trees and either wetlands or agricultural land for food. Freshwater ponds and reservoirs and rice paddies, and freshwater ponds are preferred feeding habitats during the winter months.

Japanese crested ibises are supposed to have migrated from wetland habitats to highland places because of human interference. Because there aren't many wetlands in the mountainous areas where the Japanese crested ibis live, the birds typically turn to nearby rice paddies for food.

Seasonal shifts in habitat choices are a natural part of life. While these ibises stay close to home during the breeding season, they can travel in huge groups up to 20 kilometers away from their roosting grounds in the post-breeding season. Breeding and post-breeding zones in China are located at elevations of up to 500 m above sea level.


All About the Japanese Crested Ibis

Photo: Masafumi Oishi via Getty Images

In Japan, the last wild crested ibis died in October 2003. The sole wild population remained in China's Shaanxi Province until 2008 when captive-bred birds were reintroduced into Japan. Until their re-discovery in 1981, they were assumed to be extinct. They have been placed on China's official list of those to be protected.

Researchers in northwest Shaanxi province have had 26 crested ibis chicks, both artificially and naturally incubated. An incubation center in northwest Shaanxi province produced five of seven crested ibis chicks on July 31, 2002. This number was the most chicks ever born in a single season. Among the 60 pairs of ibis reared at the research center, the chicks' parents were selected.

In the last century, habitat degradation, dwindling numbers, restricted range, winter famine, and persecution conspired to bring this species dangerously close to extinction. Stress-induced by inadequate settings has resulted in killing and dumping chicks in Crested ibises captive breeding programs.

From 1872 to 1873, crested ibises were kept in the London Zoo. Only Japan and South Korea are home to species outside of China.

Other Interesting Facts 

  • Toki is Crested ibises in Japan. During flying, the birds' pinkish tint is known as 'toki-iro,' or "toki color" in Japanese.
  • From "Nippon" comes the scientific name of the Crested ibis, "Nipponia nippon."
  • Samurai used feathers from Crested ibises to decorate their arrows. 
  • They also manufactured feather brooms for use at tea parties. You should get a feel of the feathers; Gage Beasley's Japanese Crested Ibis Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy is just as close.


Gage Beasley's Japanese Crested Ibis Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy


Final Thoughts

Only the Shaanxi province of China is home to crested ibises. Nesting and roosting areas include dense woods with large trees; feeding areas include wetland edges and river banks, reservoirs, and farmland.

One of the most endangered ibis species globally is the Crested ibis. Japan and China have undertaken extensive captive breeding programs to save the species.



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