With its hunched back, charred bare head, wrinkled spindly legs and sinister amble, the marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) is by no means the prettiest bird in the world. Found across sub-Saharan Africa, this unusual stork can reach up to 1.5 metres tall and may have a wingspan of over 3 metres. In many ways, the marabou stork acts more like a vulture than a typical stork. They are frequent scavengers, mainly feeding on carrion and various scraps; their bald head prevents their feathers from being soiled as they dive head-first into their meal.
To add to their…unfortunate appearance, marabou storks also have a pink gular sac hanging from their necks. They use this pouch during courtship rituals and as a resonator allowing the bird to produce a guttural croaking sound. Like vultures, marabou storks are gregarious creatures. Large groups can often be seen together feasting on a carcass.
As a well-adapted scavenger and opportunist, this bird is certainly not a fussy eater. They will eat almost any animal matter they can swallow. Sticking their head deep inside an animal carcass, they will rip off chunks of meat. Furthermore, especially during the breeding season, marabou storks will prey on other birds and their chicks, fish, frogs, small mammals, reptiles and eggs.
Eating rotting flesh probably doesn’t sound too appetising to you or I, but their unconventional eating habits play a vital ecological role. By removing carcasses and decaying organic matter, they reduce the transmission of pathogens to other organisms. They also assist in nutrient cycling by returning organic matter back into the food chain. Scavengers (such as vultures, hyenas and marabou storks) are often perceived as cruel and barbarous creatures. However, this reputation is unfair because these species are key to maintaining healthy ecosystems by acting as nature’s waste collectors.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.