Wildlife Wednesday: Africa’s Marabou Stork

Rainforest Trust

Oct 28, 2015

Species

  • Closeup of a Marabou Stork's distinctive head. Photo by Noel Reynolds

Picture a stork: snow white, elegant, sailing through the sky carrying a bundle of newborns. Now meet its shady cousin, the Marabou Stork, commonly known as the undertaker bird in Africa due to its dark plumage and its love of carrion. With scabby spots on its face, disheveled feathers, and feces-covered feet, this stork is the last bird you want delivering your baby.

In African folklore, this sickly looking stork was created by God out of leftover bird bits when He ran out of animal parts, leading to its ungainly appearance. The birds are monstrously huge, standing five feet tall, with a wingspan that, at ten feet, rivals that of the Andean Condor. Although it typically maintains a deathly silence, the stork makes occasional grunts with its bib-like throat sac. Its head is bald, and it is a hotbed of disease, hosting a range of worm-like parasites. In the bird world, it would win no beauty contests.

  • A flock of Marabou Storks. Photo by Christoph Strassler

The Marabou Stork’s diet is incredibly varied and incredibly unappetizing, ranging from crocodile young to trash to baby flamingos. It loves nothing more than hanging around landfills, harassing people for scraps, and has even been documented eating metal. In short, its palate is about as discriminating as a goat’s. The storks are aggressive feeders, driving rival vultures out of their way, and even use wildfires to their advantage, treating fleeing animals as their own personal barbecue.

However ugly the stork may be, its downy feathers have for centuries been given a second life in the fashion industry. The down is frequently employed in the trimming of clothing and hats. Historically spelled ‘marabout,’ the feathers decorated starlets during the Golden Age of Hollywood, with Marilyn Monroe wearing marabout shoes in The Seven Year Itch. The tail-feathers are even used in lingerie. As ungainly as the Marabou Stork is, to the fashion world, it is a star.

  • A Marabou Stork in flight. Photo by William Warby

More than most creatures in the wild kingdom, the Marabou Stork is a natural fit for Halloween. Both its feathers have been used in Halloween costumes throughout the centuries and it is naturally dressed as an undertaker – it has spooky habits and looks just like the kind of monster you’d expect to dance in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Perhaps you’ll dress as a Marabou Stork for Halloween! Just don’t expect to be welcomed by parents expecting a newborn.