The Marabou Stork

The Marabou stork is a species that most people would frown upon due to their dirty “walking dead” like appearance and somewhat disgusting dietary habits.

Storks in general usually conjure up adorable images of white-feathered birds delivering bundles of joy. The reality of the Marabou stork is anything but that.

This large African bird, nicknamed the "Undertaker Bird", is not the most eye pleasing creature and is actually a garbage-eating, pooping-all-over-itself living nightmare kind of a bird. So much so that the Marabou stork has been voted the ugliest bird on Earth and given its poop-covered legs and scabby head, that title might be considered generous.

Let's dig slightly deeper as despite its revolting looks, the Marabou stork is not all trash and faeces. Their disgusting habits play an integral part in Africa's ecosystem by aiding in reducing the spread of diseases. If these birds, along with vultures, didn't eat rotting carcasses and other decaying materials, this matter would be ripe for bacteria and other disease-causing agents.

Lets talk a bit more about this birds appearance and reasons for why they look the way they look;

This is a large, unusual looking bird thanks to its long-legs, long-neck and bare throat sac. The African Marabou stork has a wing span of 2,6 metres (one of the longest wingspans in the world) and a height of 1,5 metres. Taking these measurements into consideration, you would think this large bird would be quite heavy but surprisingly only weigh up to 9 kg (20 lbs). How you may ask? One incredible way most birds have adapted is as follows;

  • Hollow leg bones
  • Hollow toe bones
  • Hollow wing bones

So in general, birds are pretty much hollow-boned creatures and the reason being is that they had to adapt to shed some weight which is an important adaptation for flight.

The Marabou Stork | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Marabou storks are bald-headed. If you look closely it may seem as if their heads are rotting. Yes? There is a reason for this; this bird isn't a victim of premature ageing or bad genetics, despite how infected its head may appear. In fact, their head is bald to prevent infections. Think about this next one, sticking one's head into a carcass isn't the most hygienic thing in the world, so the Marabou stork developed bare heads to prevent blistering and infections.

The Marabou Stork | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Male vs Female & Breeding

Sexes are alike in coloration and are both bare, dull and have a red-spotted heads with long black legs. They are mainly dark grey on the back and white belly. The nickname given to this bird - "Undertaker Bird" - was given to it due to its colouration. It's because their dark grey backs makes it look like the large bird is wearing a Grim Reaper worthy cloak.

Males are generally slightly larger and taller than females and males can also be identified by their larger air sacs. This pouch on their throat is not used for food storage but used during courtship.

Marabou storks, as with most bird species, mate for life, which is adorable; but the methods these birds use to attract their mates are anything but adorable. The large pouch hanging from the stork's neck isn't just decorative. It inflates during mating and allows the stork to call out for love. The pouch is a disturbing 18 inches long and connects to the left nostril, allowing the bird to make a guttural, croaking noise to woo potential mates.

After mating, 3 to 5 eggs incubate for about a 30 to 50 days and both the mother and father take care of the nest which is typically high up in trees. These nests are a large, flat platforms made of sticks with a shallow central cup lined with smaller sticks and green leaves. Once hatched, the chick won't reach maturity until four years old, which is pretty old for a bird. The chicks will stay in the nest for a few months and the parents will bring back a more selective menu of meat to their young.

As they grow a bit older, the juvenile has similar colouration but is duller. Immature birds have a woolly covering on their heads and do not gain the black in their plumage until about three-years-old. By four-years the full plumage will have grown in and then the youngsters leave their parents to look for mates of their own.

Life Span

The average lifespan for a marabou stork in the wild is 25 years. In captivity, the marabou can survive for up to 41 years.

Diet

These birds are scavengers, they eat anything from termites, flamingoes and small birds and mammals to human refuse and dead elephants. Their main diet is mainly carrion and scraps and are often seen feeding on carcasses alongside vultures and hyenas. Although it doesn't seem to be very sympathetic in human eyes, this behaviour is of great importance to the ecosystem they inhabit by removing carcasses and rotting material. Marabous can help to avoid the spreading of pathogens.

Behaviour

These large birds are mostly solitary or in small groups but large groups can be seen near sources of food, while migrating or during the breeding season. Like many birds the Marabou Stork also pants when it becomes hot to lower its body temperature. These are particularly lazy birds and spend much of their time standing motionless, though once they take flight they are very elegant, using thermal up-draughts to provide the needed lift as they are not good short distance flyers. Like other storks they fly with their especially long legs trailing behind, but unlike their cousins they keep their necks tucked well in and bent into a flattened S; this allows the weight of the heavy beak to be taken on the shoulders.

Range/Habitat

These birds are wide spread and can be found throughout Africa south of the Sahara. They prefer to inhabit open dry savannah, grasslands, swamps, riverbanks, lake shores, and receding pools where fish are concentrated.

The Marabou Stork | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Population

The total population size is very large with at least 10,000 mature individuals. The population appears to be increasing and is not severely fragmented.

Status

IUCN: Least Concern
CITES: Not listed
USFWS:  Not listed

Interesting facts;

  • These birds need to eat more than 700 g (1.6 lbs) of food a day.
  • These birds have been known to feed on adult flamingoes.
  • Marabou storks are attracted to grass fires. They march in front of the advancing fire grabbing animals that are fleeing. While morbid, it's a genius plan for catching dinner.
  • If you thought your friend who doesn't wash her hands after using the restroom was gross, wait until you hear about the Marabou stork's bathroom habits. This guy defecates on himself, a habit called uro-hidrosis. The Marabou doesn't poop all over itself because it doesn't care about hygiene, though. Coating their legs with their own faeces regulates their body temperature, so this gross habit actually serves a purpose. Their legs aren't actually white at all - it's just poop.
  • The Marabou nest in the dry season when carrion and evaporating pools that contain the natural prey necessary to raise their young are available.
  • Perhaps the most interesting fact about the marabou stork is its relationship with the bee. The bee and marabou stork relationship is known as commensalism.

What is commensalism? In nature, commensalism is the result of one organism benefiting and another organism neither being benefited or harmed as the result of a relationship.

The marabou stork and bee relationship: The relationship between the marabou stork and bee is a relatively simple one that exists in the wild. A carnivore, the marabou stork thrives on meat. It uses its strong bill to pull apart the carcasses of dead animals, which it then eats. Bees use what is left behind of the carcasses as food and as shelter to lay their eggs.

Photographic advise:

This is a very tricky topic as most people usually do not want to photography this gory looking critter. I've even had guests on safari tell me that you will never be able to capture a beautiful image of this bird but I do have one piece of advice.

Being in the presence of this dramatically dark bird is quite eery and so the best possible advice I can give you is to photograph this bird in a moody scene as seen below because they will both compliment each other.

The Marabou Stork | Safari | Travel | Wild Eye

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this blog, I trust you learnt a little more about this odd looking bird and hopefully also changed your perspective around it.

Please leave a comment below and share this with a few friends who’d enjoy the read.

Until next time,

Michael

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