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The head of a juvenile Australian white ibis
Photograph: Toby Hudson

The story of Bin Chicken Island, Melbourne’s urban ibis paradise

Those in the north know it, they hear it, and they sometimes smell it – Coburg Lake Reserve's ibis island
Written by
Nicola Dowse

There is a place in Melbourne’s northern suburbs that is whispered of, in tones of equal fear and awe. Some say it’s the gates to hell itself; some say it’s a slice of natural habitat stubbornly preserved in the midst of the city. What we can all agree on, is that it’s called Bin Chicken Island, and it’s Melbourne’s own ibis-filled paradise.

Located at Coburg Lake Reserve, Bin Chicken Island is home to a sizable, very visible colony of Threskiornis molucca – otherwise known as the Australian white ibis or “bin chicken” due to its habit of raiding rubbish bins for sustenance. The small islet in the middle of the lake features a number of low lying trees, some of which have partially fallen into the water, which at any given time can be found dotted like a Christmas tree with the recognisable white-feathered, bald-headed birds. 

Although it’s sometimes used affectionately, “bin chicken” still seems a bit of an unfair nickname given that ibis are a native bird species (contrary to popular opinion, they’re not an introduced species from Egypt) that are simply making the best of a colonised, urbanised environment. In a world where they once majestically roamed wetlands eating insects, our native ibis species have adapted, now living in our parks and eating our rubbish. They’re only bin chickens because we made them such.

A small island in a lake, covered in white ibis
Photograph: Michael Carter

And Bin Chicken Island really is the epitome of the ibis’s can-do attitude. Friends of Merri Creek run regular surveys of birdlife along the waterway, including at the Coburg Lake site where the ibis were first recorded in 2009. There has been rapid expansion of ibis population between 2018-2020, however. In Friends of Merri Creek's November 2020 survey, observers recorded 277 ibises at the island, up from an estimated 125 in September of that year. 

Despite the birds being native, there are some concerns the population here may be getting a smidgen out of hand, with water around the island looking poor with algae growth – which could be related to the bird’s droppings. The community has also raised concerns about the noise, smell and behaviour of the colony, as well as its impact on the reserve's environment and amenities (including damage to vegetation and a reduction in other bird species). Moreland council is working with Friends of Merri Creek and Merri Creek Management Committee to develop a White Ibis Management Plan for the birds.

Acting mayor for Moreland council, Cr Mark Riley, said: "Our management plan includes a range of actions to manage the ibis population and their impact at Coburg Lake Reserve. The aim of this plan is to deter ibis from nesting and reduce numbers to more sustainable levels. Long term aims are to enhance habitat for native species and improve amenity values at Coburg Lake Reserve."

A small island in a lake, covered in white ibis
Photograph: Michael Carter

While some in the community are concerned Bin Chicken Island’s population may be growing to unsustainable levels, for others, it’s providing a sense of amusement, being (jokingly) referred to as a prison colony established for “these thieving felons”. Google Maps even maintains a (again, joke) “Bin Chicken Island Camping Ground”, which has an impressive rating and reviews like “Such a peaceful night on the island! The gentle patter of bin chicken droppings on my tent sang me to sleep like mother nature's lullaby” and “The tents were regularly cleaned of excess guano each morning after breakfast.” 

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Bin Chicken Island is an infamous landmark in Melbourne’s north. May its residents never find a bin empty.

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