Marabou Stork

© Shem Compion
Marabou Stork.

Name

Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus)

Appearance

The marabou stork is a large, unusual looking bird and reaches a height of 1.5 metres with a wingspan of 2.6 m. It is a heavy-bodied stork with a massive conical bill. Marabous are bald-headed, dull and have a red-spotted head with long black legs. They are mainly dark grey above and white below. Sexes are alike in coloration. Males can be identified by their large air sacs. In addition, males are generally slightly larger and taller than females.

The marabou stork has a long, reddish pouch hanging from its neck. The naked 18-inch inflatable pink sac is particularly conspicuous during the breeding season and used in courtship displays. It connects directly to the left nostril and acts as a resonator allowing the bird to produce a guttural croaking. While usually silent, the marabou stork will also emit a sound caused by beak clacking if it feels threatened. In addition to hollow leg bones, they have hollow toe bones. In such a large bird, this is an important adaptation for flight.

The immature marabou stork has similar colouration, but duller. They have a woolly covering on their heads and do not gain the black in their plumage until about three years old. Its neck and head contain no feathers. By four years old the full plumage will have grown in.

Marabou Stork Diet

Marabou storks are scavengers and mainly feed on carrion and scraps. They eat anything from termites, flamingos, small birds and mammals to human refuse. They also feed on carcasses with vultures and hyenas. This behaviour is of great importance to the ecosystem they inhabit. By removing carcasses and rotting material marabous help avoiding the spreading of pathogens.

Marabou Stork Breeding

Marabous are colonial breeders and build large nests on top of trees. Similar to the white stork, Ciconia ciconia, they like to be near human settlements in South Africa. It reaches sexual maturity when it is approximately four years old and usually mates for life. Marabou nests are a large, flat platform made of sticks with a shallow central cup lined with smaller sticks and green leaves. Usually 2-3 eggs are laid during the dry season and both parents incubate. The eggs hatch in 30 days and the young are helpless at birth. Both sexes look after and feed the young. The fledging period is 3-4 months.

Marabou Stork Behaviour

Marabou storks are particularly lazy birds and spend much of their time standing motionless. Once they take flight they are very elegant, using thermal up-draughts to provide the needed lift. 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 neck tucked well in and bent into a flattened S. This behaviour allows the weight of the heavy bill to be taken on the shoulders. Marabou storks live mostly solitary or in small groups. Larger groups can be seen at food sources, while migrating or during the breeding season.

Marabous are attracted to grass fires. They march in front of the advancing fire grabbing the fleeing animals. Like the turkey vulture, the marabou stork defecates upon its legs and feet. The turkey vulture has strong antiseptic properties in their whitewash and indeed this is also the case with the marabou stork. Their reasons for carrying out this act are different as it quite simply helps them in regulating their body temperature. It also gives the false appearance that they have lovely white legs. Like many other birds the marabou stork pants when it becomes hot, again to lower its body temperature.

Habitat

The marabou stork prefers aquatic and open, semi-arid areas. It often associated with humans near fishing villages and garbage dumps.

Where they are found

The marabou stork is found in north-eastern South Africa and occupies much of sub-Saharan Africa.