Wood Stork

Mycteria americana

Wood Stork
Wood Stork. Chauncey Davis

The only stork species in the United States and one of only three species in the New World, the wood stork is a distinctive wading bird and while it may not win many beauty contests, it is always well worth watching.

Common Name: Wood Stork, Wood Ibis

Scientific Name: Mycteria americana

Scientific Family: Ciconiidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick, long, gray-brown and somewhat mottled, decurved tip
  • Size: 35-45 inches long with 55-70-inch wingspan, very long legs, long neck, short tail
  • Colors: White, black, gray, brown, yellow, pink
  • Markings: Genders are similar, though males tend to be slightly larger and heavier. The head and neck are bare skin that ranges from pale brown-gray to darker gray-black, and often has a cracked or scaly appearance. The bare crown is black, and the forehead is paler gray. The body is white, with longer, scruffier feathers forming a thin ruff at the base of the neck. The primary and secondary feathers are black, showing a thin black edge on the folded wings and a broad black edge contrasting with the white wingpit in flight. The tail is also black. The eyes are dark, the legs are gray-black and the feet range from yellowish to pinkish.

    Juvenile birds are similar to adults but their heads and necks are covered with a fine brownish down and the bill is yellow-gray. As they mature, they retain a brown wash on the white neck, but will achieve adult plumage in 3-4 years.

    Foods: Fish, amphibians, crustaceans, reptiles, large aquatic insects (See: Piscivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    These waders prefer wet, flooded habitats including wetlands, mangrove and cypress swamps, retention ponds, drainage ditches and tidal pools. They are found year-round in the Florida panhandle, as well as throughout the Caribbean, Central America and into South America.

    In South America, their range stretches through the eastern regions of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, into northeastern Bolivia, throughout Brazil, Paraquay and Uruguay and into northern Argentina.

    During the breeding season, wood storks may expand their range slightly, reaching as far north as southern North Carolina on the Atlantic Coast and also along the Gulf Coast and both eastern and western coasts of Mexico.

    These birds regularly wander, and vagrant sightings have been reported as far north and west as California, Tennessee, Massachusetts and even into the Dakotas and southern Canada. Most vagrant sightings are recorded in fall and winter, and are typically younger birds.

    Vocalizations:

    These storks are generally silent, but young birds do use a variety of nasal barks or harsh rattling calls in the nest. In a large nesting colony, this can become quite noisy. Bill snaps and rattles are also part of the sounds wood storks make.

    Behavior:

    Wood storks are gregarious and are often found in flocks, though they can be found alone as well.

    They wade in water up to their bellies, walking slowly and deliberately with their bills open and dangling in the water. When prey touches the bill, the wood stork can snap it shut in just 25 milliseconds – one of the fastest reaction times recorded among all vertebrates.

    In flight, these birds keep both their necks and legs outstretched, which can present a gangly silhouette. They soar on thermals in neat spiral patterns similar to American white pelicans and turkey vultures.

    Reproduction:

    These storks are monogamous and mate after courtship displays that include bill snaps and clattering. Wood storks are colonial, and a single rookery tree may have two dozen or more nests in its branches. A mated pair will work together to build a shallow, relatively flimsy platform nest using sticks, lining it with smaller twigs and leaves. Nests are positioned from 10-80 feet above the ground, often over water.

    There are 2-5 whitish, elliptical eggs in each brood. Both parents share incubation duties for 27-32 days, and after the chicks hatch, both parents feed the young storks for 55-60 days, at which time the juvenile birds leave the nest regularly. While the young birds are in the nest, adult birds will vigorously defend the immediate vicinity from any predators or perceived threats.

    Because of the long incubation and parental care periods, only one brood is raised each year. Unlike many birds which breed in summer, wood storks typically breed in late winter when ponds and pools have dried up somewhat and fish are concentrated in smaller areas, making it easier to forage enough to feed hungry chicks.

    Attracting Wood Storks:

    These are not typical backyard birds, but they may appear in yards adjacent to retention ponds or suitable wetland habitats. Wetter, flooded areas are more likely to appeal to wood storks.

    Conservation:

    While these birds are not considered threatened or endangered on a global scale, local designations can vary. In the United States, wood storks were considered endangered until July 2014, when population recoveries allowed them to be removed from the endangered species list. Despite those recoveries, these birds still remain threatened. Habitat loss from wetland draining and poor water management are the most significant threats to wood storks.

    Similar Birds:

    Photo – Wood Stork © Chauncey Davis
    Photo – Wood Stork in Flight © Larry Hennessy