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The Marabou stork is a bird famous for its scavenging habits. It is deemed the ‘ugliest bird on Earth’ because of its unkempt and shabby appearance. The other name associated with it is the “undertaker bird,” as that is how it looks when observed from behind; cloak-like back, and wings, skinny legs, and tufts of white hair on the head.
These birds are a boon to the ecosystem since they play a significant role in keeping the environment disease-free by disposing of decayed animal flesh and other waste produced by them. They are capable of digesting manufactured waste as well.
Size: Length: 60 in (152 cm) Weight: 20 lb (9 kg)
Wingspan: 12 ft (3.7 m)
Bill: They have huge bills, 10.4 to 13.8 in (26.4 to 35 cm) long.
Body and coloration: These storks have a bare head and neck, with feathers starting to appear from the neck down onwards. A pink gular sac or neck pouch hangs down its foreneck, along with a neck ruff. There is also a second pouch, pinkish or reddish in color, not as prominent as the first one, hidden at the hindneck’s base amidst the white feathers. Their beak is massive and tapered, grayish-ivory in color, while the eyes are dark brown.
Their legs are thin and skinny, appearing white because of their feces but are actually black. They have black feathers on the upper side and white on the undersides.
The juvenile birds differ in color from the adults, having a brownish body and a smaller bill.
Marabou storks are seen throughout Africa, with population density highest between the Sahara Desert and South Africa.
These birds inhabit a wide variety of African habitats, primarily arid areas that have a source of water. Such regions include grasslands, open savannahs, riverbanks, swamplands, shores of lakes, and receding water pools.
In recent times, they can be found close to human society, in places like landfills and fishing villages.
Scavengers, by nature, their diet primarily consists of carrion and other waste. However, they sometimes target smaller or weaker animals like the chicks of certain birds such as doves, passerine birds, pigeons, pelicans, flamingos, and cormorants.
While rearing young, the diet of these storks changes, as extra nourishment is required then. Thus they feed on fish, reptiles, frogs, insects, eggs, and young mammals.
Of late, they have started venturing into human habitations in search of an easy meal, eating almost anything found in the garbage.
Marabou storks live up to 25 years in the wild, and as long as 41 years when raised in captivity.
Not usually preyed upon, these birds have sometimes been attacked by big cats like leopards and lions. Their main threats come from parasites like nematodes, Cestoda, and Trematoda.
Interestingly, Marabou storks breed during the dry season when food is ordinarily scarce, but because water begins drying up in several areas, it becomes easier for them to hunt for fish. They form colonies during this time, ranging from 20 pairs to almost a thousand. Mates are chosen based on their neck folds, with those having larger ones being preferred over others. Pairs are monogamous and tend to mate for life. The large, flat nests are built in trees using sticks, and leaves, where 2-3 eggs are laid at a time.
The eggs hatch after a month, incubated by both parents. They are helpless at birth and are taken care of by their parents. At around 3-4 months, they reach fledgling status and take as long as 4-5 years to reach sexual maturity.
The IUCN lists the Marabou stork as “LC” or “Least Concern”, with about 200,000 – 500,000 existing globally as per the 2006 records. The birds have adapted to living close to humans, and their populations have increased over time. However, in South Africa, they are labeled as “Near Threatened” because of the lower numbers found there.