Like most old zookeepers, I have a soft spot for old animals. I’ve been fortunate in having had the chance to care for a number of birds that survived to record longevities – a Pell’s Fishing Owl and Smoky Eagle Owl of 50+ years, a tiny Egyptian Plover that lived into its 20’s, and any number of Parrots. But it is a “50-something”-year-old Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus), known to his Bronx Zoo caretakers as “Jake”, who stands out most vividly in my mind.
No Bird of Paradise!
Marabou Storks are high up on the list of “Most Peculiar Looking” (some say ugliest!) Birds. Standing nearly 5 feet tall and with a near 8-foot-wide wingspan, their bald heads, “hunched” stature and pendulous pink air sacs lend them a most improbable appearance.
Marabou Storks eat nearly anything, and in their native Africa are much valued for consuming carrion, snakes, rodents and garbage. Ranging throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa, they are among the most visible of the continent’s large birds, and always draw gasps from safari-goers.
Catching His Own Food
Jake spent the warmer months in the zoo’s huge, moated African Plains exhibit, and I often watched him from a nearby bench as I ate lunch. Springtime brought with it a plethora of inexperienced and tasty young animals, and Jake was in his glory. While it was hard to see everything that he caught in the exhibit’s high grasses and along its pond, I’m quite sure that good number of the year’s crop of Chipmunks, Meadow Voles, Short-tailed Shrews and Garter Snakes found their way into Jake’s cavernous maw.
But his “specialty” was ambushing Peafowl chicks, and he developed quite a successful strategy. Standing very still and appearing like nothing more than a decaying tree stump (which visitors often accused him of being!), Jake waited until a Peahen led her brood close-by (60 or so Peafowl lived at large in the zoo, and many nested in the African Plains exhibit). As soon as most were past him, Jake would very “carefully” reach out and snatch the last chick in the line. No mad rushes for this hunter…often the Peahen went about her business without realizing that she was one chick short. By summertime, the “dimmer” of the Peahens were leading about only a chick or two!
Jake spent winters in an indoor cage. He endured this indignity stoically, but I noticed that he greeted his standard meal – thawed mice and commercial bird-of-prey diet (horsemeat) – without much enthusiasm. He was easy to work around outdoors, but when inside Jake was prone to using his massive bill against those who ventured too close!
If you live near a zoo that houses Marabou Storks in outdoor exhibits, by all means spend some time watching them. If possible, take along binoculars and please let me know what they catch – for they will catch something, that’s for sure!
You can learn a great deal about the natural history of Maribou Storks on the website of the National Zoological Park.
Don’t miss this wonderful Video of Maribou Storks feeding, grooming and mating atop massive nests in Kenya.
Marabou Stork image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Hugh Lunnon and Snowmanradio