The Undertaker Bird

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Three park rangers stood at the Y in the road, and our Landcruiser coasted to a stop. Our guide, Robinson, began talking with them in Swahili. The words were musical, crisp, and delightful to hear. I understood nothing. He handed them some papers, and I worried that something might be wrong. The one ranger stepped backward as she scrutinized the documents. Meanwhile, Robinson continued chatting with the other two, everyone’s hands waving in the noontime light. Robinson hesitated, turning to look over his shoulder and asked, “Do you want to see Marabou Storks?”

“Yes,” I blurted out without thinking. These are big birds, standing close to five feet tall and uglier than anything one could imagine. They are a bird of the savanna in East Africa, often visiting carcasses of large mammals where they feed with the vultures. I’d seen them in zoos but never up close in the wild.

Our guide went back to chatting with the rangers, and when they handed his documents back, we turned south to head deeper into Nairobi National Park. It was just a road check to make sure we paid our entrance fees. I stood in the back, my head out the roof, looking for any signs of these large birds. I’d spent a decade working on wading birds in the Everglades and had an affinity to these long-legged, long-necked creatures.

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Twenty minutes later, we bumped around a corner to look onto a large pond. Two Egyptian Geese waddled along the bank, and a Spur-winged Lapwing flew out with a squawk. To the right, though, below the dam, were the storks, at least 50 of them. Many were wading in the swift-flowing water while others stood ankle-deep or in the grass along the edge. The ones feeding moved their bills laterally in the water, holding the tip open a few inches. They were searching for food, hoping that something would touch that bill, and they could gulp it down. Robinson drifted to a stop where I could gaze right down on these magnificent creatures, adults and flying young.

African lore says that this species was created from scraps of other birds, making something more Frankenstein looking than pleasant. Their habit of eating carrion resulted in them being known as the “Undertaker Bird,” and they are often part of the death folklore.

An adult male stork stood with his head hunched down on his shoulders. I smiled; he looked like a gentleman, all dressed up in his most elegant attire. A gray suit coat covered his shoulders, and it had white trim along its front and tails. The coat overlay a white shirt and a puffy pink tie hung from his neck. Long gray trousers ran down his pencil-thick legs. His balding head had the pink cast of too much time in the sun, and his long yellowish snout finished off that resemblance. This gentleman, in all his ugliness, gazed up at me as if I was some peon. I liked him, a grand specimen. 

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Several looked like they must be young of the year. Although as tall as the others, their bills were noticeable shorter, and they had white down all over their heads and necks. White also edged all the covert feathers on their wings, giving them a distinguished look. These individuals showed no indication of the pink wattle. During courtship, adult males can puff up that structure. A tube connects the wattle’s pouch to their left nostril, and when full, the pouch resonates the guttural croaks he makes, noises that strengthen his bond with a female. My wife never liked it when I sang.

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A stork started to walk right toward me. His bill was several inches in the water, and he moved it so fast to the side that a wave formed in front and a whirlpool behind. In the water, they are tactile feeders, not using their eyes. When the bill touches a fish or invertebrate, it snaps shut, and hopefully, they have caught a morsel. Several large fish were swimming among all the feet, and that innate behavior is probably why these storks didn’t go after them directly. It may be that those fish were what drew this crowd here, and many birds had already eaten their fill. It might also be that those fish were here for something smaller, and the storks were after that too. After five minutes of watching the feeding, I hadn’t seen a stork catch a thing.

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks were feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks was feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A squabble grabbed my attention. Down the creek, three storks had their wings out, bills raised and pointed at each other. Maybe one walked too close to another. These are social birds, though, nesting in large colonies, and often found together at feeding sites. Right then, individuals stood lazily all around, probably digesting a good meal. It reminded me of dinner parties, where everyone lingers at the table after a superb meal, conversations lively, friendships strong. Some storks started to preen their feathers, using that long bill to work the vanes and make sure the barbules were aligned correctly. Those mighty wings were flexed in the process.

Their wingspan is over 9 feet, and their flying would rival — surpass actually — any glider pilot. A slight updraft is all they need to rise effortlessly into the heavens, not having to beat those wings. I followed Wood Storks and Great Egrets leaving a nesting colony in the Everglades to see where they went to feed. Our pilot would circle 700 feet above the colony and when a bird caught a thermal, I’d yell to the him to start climbing as fast as he could. He’d crank up the engine on our Cessna, but the birds sometimes past us on a good thermal. We’d lose them. 

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Some people mistake these storks for vultures when seen high overhead because of how effortlessly they soar. Their silhouette — the long legs and big heads – helps separate them from the vultures.

My stomach growled right then. It was almost noon, and Robinson had picked us up at 5:30 AM. It would take an hour or more to drive out of here, mainly because something else would likely grab our attention. I’d hoped these birds might fly, and I could see the power of those massive wings, and then maybe one would grab a thermal, vanishing as a speck into the blue.

“Thanks, Robinson, this was great,” I said, “I hadn’t expected so many at such close range.” He nodded and started the motor. We turned to retrace our path. 

I watched the muster for as long as it remained in sight, but no bird made any effort to fly. The Undertaker was content.

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

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