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The Marabou Stork, Leptoptilos crumeniferus, is a large wading bird in the stork family Ciconiidae. It breeds in Africa south of the Sahara, occurring in both wet and arid habitats, often near human habitation, especially waste tips. It is sometimes called the "undertaker bird," due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and sometimes, a large white mass of "hair."
A massive bird, large specimens are thought to reach a height of 152 cm (60 in) and a weight of 9 kg (20 lb). A wingspan of 3.7 m (12 ft) was accepted by Fisher and Peterson, who ranked the species as having the largest wing-spread of any living bird, and even higher measurements of up to 4.06 m (13.3 ft) have been reported, although no measurement over 3.19 m (10.5 ft) has been verified. It is often credited with the largest spread of any landbird alongside the Andean Condor. More typically, these storks measure 225–287 cm (89–113 in) across the wings, which is about a foot less than the average Andean condor wingspan and nearly two feet less than the average of the largest albatrosses and pelicans. Typical weight is 4.5–8 kg (9.9–18 lb), unsusually as low as 4 kg (8.8 lb), and length (from bill to tail) is 120 to 130 cm (47 to 51 in). Females are smaller than males. Bill length can range from 26.4 to 35 cm (10.4 to 14 in). Unlike most storks, the three Leptoptilos species fly with the neck retracted like a heron.
The Marabou is unmistakable due to its size, bare head and neck, black back, and white underparts. It has a huge bill, a pink gular sac at its throat, a neck ruff, and black legs and wings. The sexes are alike, but the young bird is browner and has a smaller bill. Full maturity is not reached for up to four years.
Like most storks, the Marabou is gregarious and a colonial breeder. In the African dry season (when food is more readily available as the pools shrink) it builds a tree nest in which two or three eggs are laid.
It also resembles other storks in that it is not very vocal, but indulges in bill-rattling courtship displays. The throat sac is also used to make various noises at that time.
Marabou Stork in South Luangwa NP, Zambia
The Marabou Stork is a frequent scavenger, and the naked head and neck are adaptations to this, as it is with the vultures with which the stork often feeds. In both cases, a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood and other substances when the bird's head was inside a large corpse, and the bare head is easier to keep clean.
This large and powerful bird eats mainly carrion, scraps and faeces, but will also take fish, frogs, insects, eggs, small mammals and reptiles such as crocodile hatchlings and eggs. It occasionally eats other birds including quelea nestlings, pigeons, doves, pelican and cormorant chicks, and even flamingos. During the breeding season, adults scale back on carrion and take mostly small, live prey since nestlings need this kind of food to survive. They may sometimes wash food in water to remove soil. When feeding on carrion, Marabou frequently follow vultures, which are better equipped with hooked bills for tearing through carrion meat, and may various wait for the vultures to cast aside a piece, steal a piece of meat directly from the vulture or wait until the vultures are done. Increasingly, Marabous have been become dependent on human garbage and hundreds of the huge birds can be found in an African dump or waiting for a hand out. Marabous eating human garbage have been seen to devour virtually anything that they can swallow, including shoes and pieces of metal. Marabous have been known to lash out when refused food and have even killed children on a few occasions when harassed.
A number of endoparasites have been identified in wild Marabous including Cheilospirura, Echinura and Acuaria nematodes, Amoebotaenia sphenoides (Cestoda) and Dicrocoelium hospes (Trematoda).