Not wishing to be unkind, but the Marabou stork is surely one of the ugliest birds that you are likely to see in southern Africa, reminiscent of a mournful undertaker stalking slowly through the veld!
It is a large bird, with a length of approximately 1.50 metres and the males are slightly larger than the females although they are alike in plumage. The head and neck is largely without feathers, being naked pink skin with just a few thin black plumes. The mantle and back is bluish-grey; the ruff and under parts are white and the large, bulbous air sac is pink. Eyes are brown, bill is pale horn mottled with black; legs and feet are black. The black legs and feet are often rendered white by a coating of the bird’s excrement.
Marabou storks are fairly widespread in the southern African region, with populations found in fairly arid areas as well as wetlands and well watered areas. They are absent from deserts and forests, but often frequent rubbish dumps on the outskirts of towns.
Marabou storks are mainly scavengers, feeding on a wide variety of animal carcasses – we have seen them on carcasses as large as that of an elephant, but also hunting and killing a range of fresh food. It is a competent fisherman, walking in shallow water with its bill partially submerged as it searches for fish. On land it hunts rats and mice, other small animals and birds. Perhaps surprisingly, it will eat the eggs of crocodiles and even young crocodiles.
Although they are gregarious birds, often seen in flocks, Marabou storks are usually silent when away from their nests. When at their nests, they may utter a series of squeals, whistles and grunts.
Marabou storks are monogamous and build a large stick platform-nest, usually placing it in a tree over water. The female lays a clutch of between one and four chalky-white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 30 days.
The scientific binomial for the Marabou stork is Leptoptilos crumeniferus; Leptoptilos from the Greek for “thin plumes”; and crumeniferus from the Latin for a “leather pouch”, presumably referring to the bulbous air sac. Thus a bird with thin plumes and a leather pouch, which may be accurate, but is hardly descriptive of this solemn-looking stork.