Storks: Ciconiidae

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STORKS: Ciconiidae



Storks are medium to large wading birds, birds who walk through shallow water in search of food. They have long legs, long necks, powerful bills and broad, strong wings. Male and female storks look alike. Scientists think they are more closely related to the vultures of North and South America than to other long-legged wading birds such as herons.

Most of the nineteen kinds of storks have feathers that are different combinations of white, black, and gray, and many have brightly colored bills. Storks are 30 to 60 inches (75 to 152 centimeters) long from beak to tail, and they weigh between 2.9 and 19.7 pounds (1.3 and 8.9 kilograms).


Storks are found on all continents except Antarctica. Most live in the warm areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The wood stork is the only kind that lives that lives in North America.


Storks are found in a wide variety of habitats. Many live in or near wetlands with shallow water. Some, such as the marabou (MARE-uh-boo), prefer drier grasslands within flying distance of rivers or lakes. Black storks nest in the forests of Europe and Asia near pools and rivers. Some storks do not mind living near people and some nest on buildings in European towns and cities.


Storks are carnivorous, meat-eaters. They eat many different kinds of animals found in or near water, including fish, frogs, insects, and snails. Some storks hunt for food by feeling underwater with their sensitive bills. Others watch for their prey and grab it. Marabou storks sometimes feed on carrion, dead and decaying flesh, just as vultures do. Since a marabou's head and neck are bare, it can poke deep inside a dead animal's body without messing its feathers.


Storks can soar high in the sky on rising warm air currents, and most of them fly with their necks and legs stretched out. Much of the year, storks keep to themselves or form small flocks. But at breeding time, some storks nest in big groups called colonies, while others nest alone or in small groups.

Storks have various courtship displays, including dancing movements and loud bill clattering. Both parents help build platform nests of sticks and twigs, usually in trees. They raise an average of five chicks, and the young storks are ready to have families of their own when they are between three and five years old.


Most people who live near storks are fond of the birds and want to protect them. Having storks around is a sign of good luck for some communities. Tourists enjoy going places where they can see the big birds. Storks are also the topic of many stories, myths, and folk tales. Some people hunt them for food because they are big and have a lot of meat.


The Oriental white stork, Storm's stork, and the greater adjutant are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. The lesser adjutant and the milky stork are considered Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Also many populations of storks are declining because the places they need to live are being taken over by human building projects. Wood storks are not listed as endangered in most places, but they are on the U.S. Endangered Species List.


Physical characteristics: Wood storks have crusty gray skin on their bare heads and necks. Their body feathers are white, and they have black flight feathers. They are between 33 and 40 inches (83 and 102 centimeters) long from beak to tail. Their wings stretch 59 inches (150 centimeters) from tip to tip, and they weigh between 4.4 and 6.6 pounds (2 and 3 kilograms).

Geographic range: Wood storks are found in southeastern United States and southward through the tropical areas of Mexico, Central America, and South America. They are the only storks that live in North America.

Habitat: Wood storks live in wetlands with shallow water. They often breed among the bald cypress trees, conifer trees with needles that grow in wetlands.

Diet: A wood stork eats mostly fish, and it catches them without having to see them. It sweeps its open bill through shallow water. The instant it feels a fish, frog, crayfish, or other small prey, it snaps its bill shut to capture the prey.

Behavior and reproduction: Many wood storks raise their young during the dry season. As the pools of water shrink, the creatures living in them have to swim closer together. That makes it easier for the storks to find food.

When the time is right, the male stork chooses a nest site, usually high up in a bald cypress tree. Then the male collects sticks while the female waits at the nest site. After the nest is built, the female usually lays three eggs. Both males and females incubate, sit on and warm, the eggs. Eggs usually hatch after twenty-eight to thirty-two days. The hungry chicks eat more than half their weight in food every day. They grow quickly and are ready to leave the nest in about two months.

Wood storks and people: When wood storks nest, it is a sign that wetlands are healthy. In folklore, storks are responsible for the delivery of babies.

Conservation status: Wood storks are not considered endangered in most places, but they are on the endangered species list in the United States because of habitat loss. ∎


Physical characteristics: European white storks have white feathers on the head and body and their wings are black. Their long bills and tall legs are red orange. The birds are 39 to 40 inches (100 to 102 centimeters) long from beak to tail, and they weigh between 5.1 and 9.7 pounds (2.3 and 4.4 kilograms). Their wingspan is 61 to 65 inches (155 to 165 centimeters).

Geographic range: Most European white storks spend the winters in tropical Africa and India, and they nest in Europe and western Asia. Some also live year-round at the southern tip of Africa.

Habitat: European white storks prefer open lands without tall trees or thick vegetation, usually in or near wetlands. They sometimes nest in towns and cities.

Diet: Unlike wood storks, European white storks find their food by sight. They eat a variety of animals, from insects and earthworms, to lizards, snakes, and frogs.

Behavior and reproduction: European white storks migrate for long distances between their wintering areas in Africa and India to their nesting places in Europe and Asia. They soar high on warm air currents and follow the same migration routes year after year.

In spring, male storks arrive at the nesting place first. Males often return to the same nests used in previous years and add more sticks and grass to them. An old nest may grow to be as big as a car. Some males build new nests. Female storks arrive about a week later. The birds have a noisy courtship display: they tilt their heads back and click their bills. This clattering noise can be heard from far away. The females lay an average of four eggs. Incubation is done by both parents and eggs hatch after thirty-three to thirty-four days. At eight to nine weeks the young birds fledge, grow the feathers needed for flight.

European white storks and people: People are fond of European white storks because they say that the birds bring good luck. The birds help control pests by eating bothersome insects and other unwanted animals.

Conservation status: European white storks are listed as threatened. In Africa, people poison insects and other animals that eat crops. So the storks have less food to eat, or they eat poisoned animals and die. In Europe, many of the storks' wetlands have been turned into farms and cities. Some of the storks are hunted on their migration trips or are killed by collisions with power lines. Groups are working to protect the storks from extinction, dying out. ∎



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Animal Bytes. "Marabou Stork" Sea World. (accessed on April 25, 2004)

Everglades National Park. "Wood Stork." National Park Service. (accessed on April 25, 2004)

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Save Our Everglades. "The Wood Stork: An Indicator of an Endangered Everglades." Everglades Foundation. (accessed on April 25, 2004)

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Williams, Laura. "Letters From the Cabin—A Lone Russian Crusader Takes on the Communist Bureaucracy to Protect a Forest Home of the Rare Black Stork. International Wildlife (November–December 2001). Online at (accessed on April 25, 2004).

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Youth, Howard. "Landfill Magic." National Wildlife (August/September 2002) Online at (accessed on April 25, 2004)