Text and photographs Pompie Burger
Text and photographs Pompie Burger
T here are several reasons and ample evidence that storks actually are involved in this gynecological hullabaloo. The first is that they have a huge bill that enables them to carry such a large ‘parcel’. As you probably know, when a pregnant lady approaches her delivery date, she is subjected to an event referred to as a stork party, an event where lots of other ladies flock around her. This process has also been very well documented vi-à-vis storks, especially the large-numbers aspect. Whether they also become involved in the gossip and bringing presents to the gathering, I’m not at all sure, but who knows? Anything is possible.
Mr El Arnaut Abdim Bey, the Egyptian governor of the Wadi Halfa area of Sudan (sounds like the equal of the deputy mayor of Gochas) must have had contacts very high up in the hierarchy of the ornithological society in Egypt (probably the Pharaoh himself), because why they named Abdim’s Storks (Ciconia abdimii ) after him, I still cannot figure out. He definitely did not know anybody in the Broederbond, because this bird’s Afrikaans name is Swart Sprinkaanvoël, which is not that original either.
Abdim’s Storks, intra-African migrants which do not breed here, are the smallest of all the storks in Namibia. They feed mainly on insects such as grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, and are thus not associated with water like the other storks. Huge flocks can often be seen during the summer months, circling high above, looking for rain-related insects, or strolling along below, shoulder to shoulder like a search party.
Black Storks (Ciconia nigra) usually occur in much smaller groups, often only one or two. They are, to a large extent, a bigger version of Abdim’s Stork. The other main difference is that they have a red bill compared to the Abdim’s grey bill. They nest in isolation on cliffs, either building the nests themselves, or using old raptor or Hamerkop nests. Indeed, the Woolly-necked, Saddle-billed and Black species are the only storks that do not nest in colonies.
Woolly-necked Storks (Ciconia episcopus) are rather handsome. Their name derives from the word episcopes, and refers to this bird’s soft, curly, neck feathers, which are reminiscent of the rabbit fur trimmings used to adorn the robes of French bishops. We watched a group of Woollies on a flood plain feasting in a small pool of water on frogs. What was most interesting was that by the time we arrived at the party, they were probably full to the brim. They were taking frogs out of the pool, carrying them around like new-born babies and then prodding them. The result of this peculiar behaviour was that a group of Yellow-billed Kites was waiting in the wings, taking over the punch-drunk frogs from the storks without getting their feet wet in the process.
Yellow-billed Storks (Mycteria ibis) have very tactile bills, capable of rapid reaction when encountering prey in the mud or dirty water. They can often be seen poking around for food with more than two-thirds of their bills submerged beneath the surface of the water. They nest in colonies in trees along some of the large rivers in the north of the country.
Saddle-billed Storks (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) are usually seen in pairs, wading in shallow water in large river systems. They are resident and show no evidence of seasonal movements. With their multicoloured bills, they are the second largest of all the storks and probably the most attractive. If you really want to impress co-birders with your knowledge, you can mention that the male has brown and the female yellow eyes.
Probably the most interesting of the storks is the African Openbill (Anastomus lamelligerus). These birds can be seen in massive flocks along the bigger rivers in the north. Over the last few years they have been seen increasingly further south, which might be due to the good rains in Namibia. They are, indeed, the most common storks in Africa. The reason for the funny shape of their bills has still not been established conclusively. It is not, as was initially thought, to open or hold snails or mussels, neither because they are astonished by the sheer beauty of our country. In fact, food is held in the tip of the bill, and opened under water.
The largest and ugliest of this genus is the Marabou Stork (Leptopilus crumeniferus). Because these birds have the habit of joining vultures at a carcass, they are often grouped with these scavengers, but they do, in fact, belong to the stork family. They are also closely related to the Shoebill. Their diet ranges from termites to elephant steaks. They usually arrive at a kill early, but seldom join the vultures at the carcass because their bills are not adapted to eating directly from it. As a result they hang around, picking up bits and pieces dropped by the other scavengers.
Part of this stork’s peculiar appearance is the large, bulbous pendant pink sac formed by normal neck skin. Neither a crop nor a baby bag, this sac is connected to the oral cavity, is highly vascular and is visible only when inflated. Moreover, it is involved in thermo-regulation, and is a dominance signal in social interaction by males. The pouch changes in size and colour during this display.
The Marabou, White Stork and African Openbill practise urohydrosis. This involves the deliberate release of excrement onto their highly vascular legs to cool their body temperature. In the process their legs become whitewashed, which is somehow fascinating to me, because how does a stork and, for that matter, any bird, miss its legs when defecating?
Since ancient biblical times White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) have been known to nest on top of buildings. This is probably where the myth that they deliver babies originated. The Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians believe that these storks bring harmony to the family on whose property they nest. It is also the national bird of Lithuania. They re-use their nests. Indeed, there are records of a nest that was in use from 1549 till 1930, when it was destroyed (by guess who?).
Ever wondered where ugly, white, black and yellow babies come from?
This article was first published in the Flamingo August 2011 issue.