The Omnivorous Marabou Stork: Old Man In A Tailcoat

30 Apr 2021

Many people perceive the Marabou Stork as ugly or describe it as an old man wearing a tailcoat. Some call it the “undertaker bird”. The Marabou is a large member of the stork family, just under 1.5 metres tall, with a wingspan of more than 2.5 metres. The head and neck are almost bare and a reddish wattle adds to the peculiar appearance. Apparently the purpose of the pouch on the throat is to regulate temperature and to show off. Marabous often stand on the same spot for hours, moving forward only a few slow paces at a time.

Since they are highly effective scavengers these storks are very useful to people. Marabous mainly feed on carrion, devour pests and scraps, but also eat almost any animal matter – insects, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and eggs. They join vultures at carcasses, catch fish in pools which are drying out, wade through shallow water looking for frogs, or they pick locusts and caterpillars from the grass on open plains. In some countries they are permanently found at rubbish dumps.

Marabou Storks cover their long dark legs with their own white, liquid faeces. According to experts this is a cooling mechanism because it helps to reflect the sunlight. These large birds are excellent flyers. Like vultures, Marabous rise high into the sky on a thermal, and riding the thermal remain airborne for hours without flapping a wing. From the considerable altitudes at which they fly they are able to search the ground for carcasses. Sometimes they travel vast distances.

When a larger prey – such as a bullfrog – is found, the Marabou Stork stabs the quarry with its pointed bill and then repeatedly tosses it into the air, catching it with its bill, to get it into the right position for swallowing the meal in one piece. Marabou Storks have been seen attacking flamingos and killing them with their long bill. When they feed on carrion they manage to tear off pieces weighing up to one kilogram. Usually the scavenger storks patiently stand at a carcass waiting their turn, but sometimes several of them suddenly spread their wings and keep them spread for several minutes. The reason for this behaviour has not been clarified yet but it is assumed that it is intended to intimidate other members of the species.

Marabou Storks are classified as “possibly endangered” in Namibia, and according to estimates there are around 900 of these birds. The decreasing number of large predators and poison laid out by farmers targeting problem animals (jackal and caracal) are among the reasons for the declining Marabou population. Being scavengers, marabous descend on the remains of prey left by large predators, and when searching for food they eat any scraps of meat, including poisoned bait. There are only a few Marabou breeding pairs in the north-eastern parts of the country.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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