Goja: An Ibis Writes History

After 20 years of this project, there is a lot to tell. But a story of one bird seems particularly remarkable: no fate was as representative of the success and setbacks of this project as that of Goja.

Goja was hatched into human care in 2009 and was the last one in a line of 11 chicks to be hand reared. As one of the youngest that year, she was relatively small and weak, partly due to her lack of appetite at the beginning of her life. Goja grew up however and became a courageous and persistent flyer in the training camp. It was that first year, that the team successfully led all captive birds to the wintering grounds, a milestone in the history of the project.

For a long time, there was frustration with the project, as none of the released animals made any attempt to return to their breeding grounds in spring. But then one day that changed: very unexpectedly, and long after the start of the breeding season, a bird returned to Burghausen in 2011: Goja was the first Northern Bald Ibis to cross the Alps on their own in hundreds of years. Another major milestone was reached.

As previously stated, Northern Bald Ibises mostly remain in the warm south until they reach sexual maturity. Then, it is only their reproductive drive that leads them back to the breeding areas. Goja was only two years old at the time of her migration, and just a week after her arrival, she was already on her way back to Tuscany. To the team’s amazement, she had fledglings in tow. These had hatched in the summer in the colony of Burghausen and, driven by their migratory instinct, had joined the experienced Goja. The first wild young bird had migrated across the Alps without human help, which was another big step towards resettlement that had been achieved. Goya stunned everyone when she did not take the migration route around the mountains that she had been shown during the human led migration two years prior: rather she flew directly over the Alps to Tuscany, proving that migratory birds are very capable of navigating themselves if they know the starting place and the intended destination.

Goja was reliable. She returned the following spring and was the first released migratory bird to raise three chicks on her own. Later that same year, other Northern Bald Ibises followed her from Tuscany. Including a surprise guest: the young bird Jazu, which Goja had led across the Alps the previous year, also turned up in Burghausen in late summer. Although he was still too young to breed, he was the first wild bird to successfully learn migratory behavior from another ibis in a natural way.

In the fall of the same year, Goja met the same sad fate as many other ibises: during the fall migration to the winter area, she, and her offspring Jedi, were shot down shortly before their final destination of Tuscany. Thanks to Goja’s GPS transmitter, the responsible bird manager arrived at the site, a few minutes later. Even if she was not able to save the birds, she could at least help to identify the perpetrator. Even after her death, Goja was still making history: for the first time the Ibis team could successfully prosecute an illegal hunter. Not only that, but 8 years later, a civil lawsuit led to another severe sentence against the man. It was the first case in which an illegal shooting resulted in a successful prosecution and punishment.

The name Goja was inspired by Jane Goodall, who visited the project in 2008. The renowned behavioral researcher later became Goja’s godmother.