Monday, March 29, 2010

Look Out For Mr. Stork

I’ve wanted to write about the Marabou Stork for a long time. It is amazingly ugly. It has a bald head, except for minimal scraggly hair. The giant, pointed beak, perfect for ripping into large African carrion, is the color of decaying bone. There is only one reason that it hasn’t appeared on this blog yet: it’s not endangered. Amrita from Not Extinct Yet has saved me though. No, she didn’t go and shoot enough Marabou Storks to put them on the list1. She found the Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) which is closely related enough the Marabou Stork to fill its place on Endangered Ugly Things.

Image from MangoVerde
Image from MangoVerde

The Greater Adjutant hails from Southeast Asia, roosting near wetlands that teem with its prey. What kind of prey? Whatever it can catch. Insects, crustaceans, frogs, fish, carrion, rodents, even slow ducks. Much like the Marabou Stork (and the vultures they compete with), the ugly bald head is a great adaptation for shoving one's face deep inside a rotting carcass2.

Their large nesting colonies form in leafless trees around these wetlands during the dry season. As the water recedes, the aquatic animals this stork preys on are that much easier to grab. The Greater Adjutant uses this abundant resource to produce their eggs, and feed their hatchlings. I can't find any pictures of young Adjutants, but they can't be any uglier than the adults. Come the rainy season, they migrate to other wetlands in Northern India until the next breeding season.

The draining, clearing, and general messing-around-with of wetlands in the area has left only two breeding populations of these giant birds. One is in Cambodia, the other in Assam, India. Between these two areas, there are less than one thousand individuals. Along with the destruction of their habitat, the eggs and adults are also hunted, presumably because there's a lot of meat on a four-foot tall bird.

The Greater Adjutant is protected in the areas in which it's found, but enforcement is not always up to snuff. It seems that there was a big push to stop egg collection, which helped increase Adjutant numbers the next year. Hopefully these conservation efforts will continue to keep these magnificent, if horribly ugly, birds around.

1 I’m imagining the IUCN listing—Threats: Conservationists.
2Think about eating a bowl of jello without your hands. Wouldn't that be so much more pleasant if you were bald?