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 prominent member of the Ciconiidae bird family. While it may not win many beauty contests, it is always well worth watching, and this informative fact sheet can help birders better appreciate all that is unique and distinctive about wood storks.
- Scientific Name: Mycteria americana
- Common Name: Wood Stork, Wood Ibis
- Lifespan: 11-18 years
- Size: 35-45 inches
- Weight: 5.5-7 pounds
- Wingspan: 55-70 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Wood Stork Identification
The thick, gray-brown bill with a stout structure and pinkish or reddish decurved tip is the most characteristic feature of wood storks, but there are other identification traits worth noticing. Genders are similar, though males tend to be slightly larger and heavier than females. The head and neck are covered in 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 or whitish-brown. 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 three to four years.
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.
Wood Stork Habitat and Distribution
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. In general, however, these wading birds are not vigorous migrants.
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, which is 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, awkward silhouette. They soar on thermals in neat spiral patterns similar to American white pelicans and turkey vultures.
Diet and Feeding
These wading birds are primarily piscivorous, feeding on many different types of fish. Other aquatic prey, including amphibians, crustaceans, and large aquatic insects are also part of their diet, and they will occasionally eat reptiles such as snakes, small turtles, or even baby alligators as well.
A nesting pair of wood storks and their chicks may eat as much as 400 pounds of fish and other prey during a single breeding season.
These storks are monogamous and mate after courtship displays that include bill snaps and clattering. Wood storks are colonial nesters, 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 to 80 feet above the ground, often over water.
Eggs and Young
There are two to five whitish, elliptical eggs in each wood stork brood. Both parents share incubation duties for 27 to 32 days, and after the chicks hatch, both parents feed the young storks for 55 to 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.
Wood Stork 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.
Tips for Backyard Birders
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, making them more likely to visit after heavy rains or storms that flood suburban areas.
How to Find This Bird
Because of their larger size and the fact that they forage in open water areas, wood storks are not too difficult to find in the right habitat and range. Look for these birds in ponds and flooded areas, or watch for their gangly flight appearance and wing pattern to identify them in flight. Visiting a nesting rookery can also lead to amazing wood stork sightings, but should only be done with great care so as not to stress or disturb the nesting birds.
Explore More Species in This Family
The wood stork is not the only amazing wading bird for birders to watch for. In similar habitats, also be on the lookout for birds such as:
Even if you don't see a wood stork, be sure to check out our other detailed bird fact sheets for more information about all your favorite species!