Nov 062009
photo provided courtesy of Chadica on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSub-Saharan Africa
Habitatvaried: grasslands, wetlands, tropical forest
Nichelarge opportunistic predator, scavenger
Favorite Foodcarrion
Heightover 4 feet tall
Weightup to 17 pounds

The marabou stork won’t win too many friends with its looks. A huge, gangly bird with a naked pink head, a throat sack that looks like testicles, and a habit of defacating on its own legs to cool down, it is a repellent creature. It was even the subject of a dark novel by Irvine Welsh, best known for writing Trainspotting. But those who look past the surface of the marabou stork may just discover a remarkable and endearing animal.

After all, there must be some reason why it was one of the most popular exotic pets illegaly exported from Senegal for 30 years.

One of the most startling features of this great bird is its sheer size. An adult can stand well over 4 feet tall. Marabou storks also boast some of the longest wingspans of any flying creature on earth, reaching up to 10 and a half feet. To add to the creepiness factor, the marabou stork is completely mute. Instead of vocalizing sounds, it claps its bill together when excited or communicating to potential mates.

Primarily a scavenger, the marabou stork is built for feeding on dead things. It boasts an enormous bill for gulping down chunks of food and like vultures has a naked head. The lack of feathers helps the stork to stay clean and avoid infection when feeding on festering carcasses. Blood dries faster on bare skin instead of feathers and the sun can more easily kill off bacteria when the germs are directly exposed. Hanging around the outskirts of a kill, marabou storks will wait until large predators like lions eat their fill and leave.

Despite its preoccupation with carcasses, the marabou stork is a master opportunist, often seen around rubbish heaps and garbage bins. They’ve also been observed fighting with feral dogs for scraps lining the streets of African villages. Fishing villages in East Africa are a common destination for the storks as well. They’re no stranger to gobbling scraps and then resting on rooftops or in the shade of huts. Not one to always be the thief, the marabou stork will also hang around shallow lakes and marshes searching for small animals to snap up.

With its gangly appearance, ability to live off of just about anything, and its genuinely odd character, the marabou stork is as bizarre as it is fascinating.

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