“With monstrous head and sickening cry….” Such was the Donkey’s description of himself in GK Chesterton’s poem.
It could well be the description of a hadeda ibis, a large dark-coloured ibis disturbing the peace in rural and suburban Africa. Its ‘sickening cry’ wakes us in the early morning, disturbs our afternoon naps, and frightens the unsuspecting.
While graceful enough in flight (apart from the crooked neck), landing is a huffing and puffing affair usually accompanied by more cries; the latter either to express amazement at his ability to land or to inform all the cousins where he ended up.
The hadeda is a drab grey/brown colour at first glance, but sunlight reflecting on the feathers displays a beautiful spectrum of colours similar to the effect of oil on water. Their long, curved beaks drill into the ground in order to feast on worms, crickets, and other such tasties.
South Africans tend to hate the hadeda—its noise and its mess. But take a South African away for a time and you’ll hear, “I miss the hadedas.” I was once talking on the phone with a South African living overseas. As we spoke the hadedas cried out in the background. “Was that a hadeda?” was the plaintive query.
We often sit in our tiny garden with a hadeda or two ambling around within a couple of metres, keeping a wary eye on us. Suddenly, with no apparent reason, one of them will let rip his awful high-pitched scream. A partner in the tree above will screech a reply. Back and forth will go the “Haa, haa” without any sense of interaction between the two—it’s more like a shouting contest than a conversation.
When quiet, and they can sit quietly for very long periods of time, they are the most comical of creatures. They look like a row of little old men, passing the time of day scratching and preening themselves, sitting on a roof or a fence in a row of five or ten or more.
Taking off, especially if they have been given a fright, is hilarious. I have occasionally (unintentionally) frightened a hadeda or two when opening the back door. Only half their energy is spent getting their not inconsiderable bulk off the ground with much flapping of their large wings. The rest seems to go into squawking their displeasure and alerting the world to our uncharitable behaviour. But in spite of the noise and their weight, they rise surprisingly quickly from a standing position.
The hadeda will not win any beauty contest, nor singing competition; there is nothing particularly attractive about them. The hadeda is simply there: a large, loud presence on the African landscape, an atrocious noise in our quiet suburbs. But without them our landscape would be poorer and our lives a little less rich. A reminder that in God’s scheme of things there is room for all: the petite and unobtrusive, the stately and graceful, and the buffoon.
And who is to say who is who? Today, perhaps it is the gracious wisdom of the sage we need. But tomorrow, who knows? Perhaps it is the buffoon who will draw us out of our sorrow and introspection and lead us into loud and carefree laughter that damages our dignity but frees our souls.