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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Behold, the bin chicken: Sydney’s stinky, grimy but (mostly) beloved bird

SYDNEY — Lisa Akkoumi was enjoying a leisurely summer lunch with friends in a Sydney park recently when her cafe table suddenly erupted in a flurry of black and white feathers. When she looked down, half of her meal was gone. And in its place was the grimy, six-inch beak of Australia’s most infamous bird.

Behold, the bin chicken: the bane of outdoor dining Down Under, toxic tormentor of children’s playgrounds and all-around avian villain — at least in the eyes of many here.

“They are a pest,” said Akkoumi, after shooing away the culprit. “I don’t know anyone who loves them.”

And yet, some Australians adore the bin chicken, whose real name — the white ibis — has been eclipsed by its dumpster-diving nom de plumage.

From Brisbane to Melbourne — but especially in Sydney — bin chickens are now ubiquitous. Driven from their natural wetlands, their urban numbers have risen in recent years, leading to growing resentment of the bird.

But the creature also has a cult following. No trendy neighborhood is complete without a bin chicken mural. Bin chicken tattoos are now almost as easy to spot as the bird itself. Several children’s books are devoted to the much-maligned species. And there’s even an effort to make it the mascot for the 2032 Summer Olympics in Brisbane.

Its resilience, meanwhile, has made it an emblem for immigrants, an icon for the LGBTQ+ community and a favorite of ornithologists.

“People don’t appreciate the noise, the smell, the sight of the bin chicken,” said John Martin, an ecologist and bird expert in Sydney. “They miss the picture that this is quite a unique species. They are living in our urban habitat with us. They’ve adapted.”

Martin calls them the winged equivalent of an “Aussie battler,” or everyday hero. “They just get on with things,” he said.

Whether they get on with things a little too well, however, is the question.

Australians are spoiled for beautiful birds: Resplendent rainbow lorikeets are everywhere. So are sulfur-crested cockatoos. Drive through the Outback, and you might not see a human for days, but you’ll be surrounded by brilliant green budgerigars and blushing pink galahs.

The white ibis, however, is not one of them.

In ancient Egypt, ibises were worshiped as embodiments of the god of wisdom and magic. Their mummies have been found in Egyptian tombs. Herodotus wrote that if someone killed one, “there is no alternative but to put the offender to death.”

Australia’s white ibis is a close relative of the Egyptian variety. Its scientific name, Threskiornis molucca, comes from the Greek words threskos (sacred) and ornis (bird).

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But that’s about as hallowed as the bin chicken gets. With its gangly limbs, wrinkly black head and beady eyes, this bird isn’t your typical Audubon calendar model. Any color on its feathers probably comes from the trash.

Its nicknames are no more glamorous: dump chook, tip turkey, garbage goose. Some call it the Bankstown flamingo after the Sydney suburb where the birds first invaded a quarter-century ago, when drought — and poor environmental planning — pushed them out of their native wetlands in western New South Wales.

Surprisingly, the birds flourished. Instead of rural wetlands, they began inhabiting inner-city reservoirs, irrigation canals and even nonnative palm trees. Instead of snakes, fish and frogs, they began using their long legs and beaks to raid landfills, rubbish cans and picnics for french fries and other foods they normally would never consume.

The bin chicken was born — and born and born.

Unlike in wetlands, where white ibises flock after large rainfalls to breed for a few months, Sydney’s carb-fueled bin chickens mate year-round, Martin said.

By 2003, about 1,000 of the birds had settled in Bankstown, destroying vegetation and annoying residents. The local council hired an exterminator to shoot them, but it made little difference. Two decades later, the suburb is still struggling to control its bin chickens, whose numbers fluctuate between 1,600 and 2,800 among multiple sites, officials say.

Ibis culls are now less common than oiling their eggs to prevent them from hatching. Like other native species, the birds are protected in New South Wales: Killing them requires a permit, though that hasn’t prevented occasional attempts to cook one.

Unlike Brisbane, Sydney hasn’t adopted a citywide plan for managing its bin chicken populations, Martin said. As a result, a suburb will sometimes dislodge a colony only to push them next door.

And yet it’s hard to blame the unfortunate souls who suddenly find themselves battling a bin chicken brood.

During the covid-19 pandemic, Tamara and Brett Yandell fled their central Sydney home to stay with relatives down the coast. When they returned a few months later, they discovered that dozens of bin chickens had taken roost in the gum trees next door. The roof and side of their house were coated in smelly white droppings.

“Their poos are huge,” Tamara said. “You can actually hear them hitting the ground.”

When the council couldn’t do anything, the Yandells took matters into their own hands. First, Brett tried booting a football into the branches to scatter the birds, but in this game of bin chicken, the birds barely flinched. He now heads outside every other evening with a black contraption the size of a sawed-off shotgun. But instead of buckshot, it shoots red and green laser beams that annoy the birds.

“People in the neighborhood think we’re a bit weird,” Tamara said with a laugh.

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In fact, bin chicken horror stories are common here. At one Sydney preschool, so many roosted on the roof that it looked like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” The ibises splattered the playground so thoroughly that the school worried children would catch salmonella.

There is no denying it, Martin said. For all their virtues, white ibises smell, especially when mating. It doesn’t matter whether they’re dingy dumpster divers or snowy white wetland specimens.

“They quite literally stink,” he said.

A few years ago, when an LGBTQ+ sports league in Sydney needed a Mardi Gras costume, someone had an idea. “Bin chickens,” recalled Jamarr Mills. “But sexy bin chickens.”

Like many in the Emerald City Kickball league, Mills is an American transplant. The bin chicken seemed like an appropriate icon.

“It’s a creature that feels a bit out of place,” said the Maryland native, who is Emerald City’s chief brand officer. “People look at it and think, ‘What is this weird thing doing here?’ But they eventually come to appreciate what it adds to the environment.”

In March of 2021, Mills and other shirtless kickballers donned bin chicken headdresses and sequined wings to strut around the Sydney Cricket Ground. This year, they plan to elaborate on the outfits for Mardi Gras.

“There is something really fun, beautiful and kind of quirky about this bird that is able to find delight in things that other people throw away,” he said.

The bin chicken may be widely despised, with songs and a fake documentary mocking it. But that underbird status also adds to its allure.

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Sydney and Melbourne have murals of the dumpster diver. Bin chicken merch flies off the shelf. And nary a tattooist hasn’t inked at least one rubbish raptor outline. When a sculptor recently put up bin chickens around Brisbane — complete with cigarettes in their beaks and beers in their talons — the artworks were so popular that some were stolen.

The birds are also a reminder of the impact of urbanization and the need to coexist with wildlife, Martin said.

After losing half her lunch in Centennial Park, however, Lisa Akkoumi didn’t feel like coexisting with the culprit.

“You used to see them in parks,” she said of the ibises. “But now they are on suburban streets, in your yard. They are everywhere.”

Nearby, a bin chicken was busy plundering a trash can as a toddler tried to catch one of its comrades. In the distance, a dozen birds were encircling a picnic table where Bryan Zhang and his family were eating.

“We don’t mind them,” Zhang said as the ibises approached. “You just need to pay attention to your food.”

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