“It was a big white bird with a strange head, and its wings had black on them…” So begin more identification requests this year than ever before, so it must be a good year for wood storks in Florida, at least in the Sarasota area. And I’ve been seeing them by the side of the road, in condo ponds, and in suburban streams.I few years ago, wood storks were a rare sighting locally, and you’d have to go down to Naples’ Corkscrew Sanctuary to increase your odds.
The patterns of wood storks and other birds are a mystery to me, and with climate change, the mystery will grow. In any case, it’s still fair to say that these large wading birds can only be found in a small portion of the U.S. — year round in Florida, including during its breeding season, and also in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina during the winter months, typically in freshwater and brackish wetlands and swamps.
You’re probably asking yourself, “How can they deliver babies if they live in the swamp?” Well, wood storks don’t deliver babies. You are thinking of the white stork that breeds in Europe and winters in Africa, a common confusion. Wood storks are the only type of stork to breed in the U.S. And if one delivered your baby, you might gasp at it’s facial appearance! (the stork’s – not the baby’s). They have featherless heads and long black bills, which prompted a variety of unflattering local names: flinthead, gourdhead, ironhead, Spanish buzzard. My favorite local name is “Preacher,” because standing solitary or in a phalanx, wood storks look like pious preachers at the pulpit.
In flight, they are among the most graceful birds. As they fly, they look like an Olympic swimmer gliding underwater after the starting dive. Tall birds, they have a height of around 35-45 inches with an impressive wingspan of 55-70 inches across.
The wood stork’s “grope-feeding” technique is unique. Standing in water that is between 6 and 10-inches deep, the wood stork lowers its bill into the water, keeping it slightly ajar. When the wood stork feels an minnow bump into its bill, it snaps its bill shut within 25 milliseconds, a remarkable reaction time in the vertebrate world. The storks walk along in the water, stirring up activity, as well as raising a wing to throw a frightening shadow on potential prey.
Nesting for wood storks begins during dry season, when the food supply is high. Wood storks are social birds so they prefer to feed and nest in colonies. One tree might house up to 25 different wood stork nests during breeding season. And a family of two adult wood storks and two chicks might eat as much as 400 pounds of fish in a single breeding season, making their feeding techniques even more vital.
If you are still hung up on the baby myth, I’ll tell you, it can be attributed to Hans Christian Andersen’s 1838 story called “The Storks” in which there’s village where storks take babies from a pond and deliver them to families that have well-behaved children. The idea of storks and childbirth can also be attributed to white storks’ migration pattern and their return during the spring, the season for rebirth and new life.