The tale of the ibis


Andrew Blitman
Andrew Blitman

One of the most recognizable college mascots in the United States, Sebastian the Ibis has long been a symbol of the University of Miami. An icon, we can find him hanging out across campus. He goes to sporting events, pep rallies, important functions and especially student orientation activities. But how and why did a fish-eating bird come to represent one of the top universities in the country?


Sebastian’s story stretches back to UM’s early days when, in 1926, the yearbook called itself “The Ibis.” The bird, according to Native American and university folklore, is the last animal to seek shelter before a hurricane impact, warning that danger is inevitable. After the maelstrom the ibis is first to re-emerge, a sign of clear skies ahead.

The ibis became the official mascot in 1958, when student John Stormont built, wore and performed in an ibis suit at football games.

Sebastian’s appearance was taken from the American white ibis (Eudocimus albus), a long-beaked wading bird found in the Mid-Atlantic States through South America. Standing two feet tall, it has a wingspan of three feet. Ibises are social, living in large colonies with many species of birds. However, individuals tend to hunt alone. During mating season, the beaks of both males and females swell bright red, blending into the white feathers of the face. Like many birds, American white ibises mate for life. Females lay two to five eggs annually.

A closely related species, the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), occasionally hybridizes with the white ibis. The scarlet ibis is virtually identical, minus the color, to Sebastian’s species. Its red color comes from the crustaceans it eats. This is also the secret behind the flamingo’s bright pink coloration.

The ancient Egyptians revered the ibis as a symbol of Thoth, the god of the Moon. Priests in the holy cities of Saqqara and Hermopolis raised and sacrificed millions of sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus) to honor the deity. Each pharaoh was buried along with his holy ibises to ensure safe passage to the afterlife. However, the Egyptians did not worship the ibis; they worshiped the attribute of divinity that characterized its being.

Like the ancient Egyptians, we at the U hold the ibis close. After more than half a century, Sebastian continues to be a powerful college tradition that defines what it means to be a Hurricane.