Marabou—The Misjudged Bird


 “If there is a bird of more evil omen than the marabou . . . , I have yet to meet it.”—The World’s Wild Places—Africa’s Rift Valley.

OF THE many birds found in Africa, few have come under the severe criticism that the marabou has suffered. The bird is commonly portrayed as being mean and ugly and as lacking good motive. Clearly, the marabou has a serious public relations problem.

Are you attracted to birds that have elegant looks and melodious voices? Well, the marabou has neither. With a pink head and neck that are bereft of feathers, the bird appears sullen and forlorn. In adults, a reddish inflatable pouch resembling a thick, round necktie hangs on the throat. Most people feel that the pouch does little to adorn the creature. However, Dr. Leon Benun, head of the Ornithology Department at the National Museums of Kenya, reminds us: “Just because the pouch looks ugly to us doesn’t mean it’s ugly to the marabou.” Even so, as yet, no one knows the biological function of this pouch.

The bird’s feeding habits likewise do little to endear it to observers. For one thing, it is a carrion eater. When carcasses cannot be found, it has been known to kill other birds to satisfy its healthy appetite. Little wonder that many people seem to hate it with a passion.

Yet, despite its ungainly looks and traits, the marabou has a number of admirable qualities. Join us as we better acquaint ourselves with this much-maligned bird.

A Giant Among Birds

The marabou is arguably the largest of the stork family. A full-grown male can reach a height of five feet [150 cm] and weigh over 15 pounds [8 kg]. Females are slightly smaller. The bird’s heavy, wedge-shaped bill can grow to a length of more than ten inches [30 cm]—a powerful asset in extracting pieces of meat from a carcass.

As large as it is, this stork is an accomplished flier. With a wingspan of more than eight feet [2.5 m], the marabou is able to glide with the best. In flight, it is the very picture of elegance with its head slightly retracted to the shoulders and its long legs extended behind the body. It has mastered the use of warm air currents, or thermals, and can fly to such great heights that at times it is nearly invisible from the ground! Why, marabous have been known to soar as high as 13,000 feet [4,000 m]!

Responsible Parents

Particularly admirable, though, is the job the marabou does as a parent. Indeed, parenting is a demanding occupation that starts with the construction of a nest. After selecting a suitable location, the male, to be joined later by a female, initiates the building work. The nest, sometimes constructed 100 feet [30 m] above the ground, is nothing fancy. The three-foot-wide [1 m] structure is little more than a rough, open platform of dry sticks, tree branches, and leaves. In fact, a breeding bird will sometimes inherit an old nest, giving it  a new lease on life by adding twigs and other materials. Some colonies of marabous have been known to maintain a nesting site for 50 years.

While a new home is still under construction, the male marabou begins the process of finding a mate. Contrary to the norm among many bird species, the male waits to be approached by the female. Several prospective mates will present themselves with the hope of currying the male’s favor. Rejections are common. But persistence pays off, and a female will finally be accepted. During the ensuing courtship, both birds, their neck pouches fully inflated, will utter vocalizations intended to scare away unwanted parties. These have been described as moos, whines, and whistles—the only known sounds of marabous, except for the occasional clattering of their huge bills. A strong bond develops, cemented by a popular “up-down” greeting that is displayed whenever a partner returns to the nest after an absence. This involves throwing the head backward, lowering it, and then making a prolonged clattering of the bill.

The couple finish the nest together. Egg incubation will also be a shared task. After an incubation period of one month, two or three chalky white eggs will hatch into little pinkish, sparsely feathered chicks that will be objects of interest to both parents. These young marabous receive marvelous care. A vigorous feeding program that includes highly nutritious foods, such as fish, will begin. In swampy areas, where marabous are frequent visitors, the parents are able to obtain a good supply of frogs, another common item on the birds’ menu. The hatchlings are able to feed by collecting food fragments that are regurgitated onto the nest by the parents. Growth for the young birds is slow, and it is not until they are four months old—when they are also able to fly away from the nesting site—that they begin surviving on their own.

Sanitation Workers

While the marabou has often been disdained as a carrion eater, it actually performs quite a useful service. Predatory animals leave the African plains littered with rotting carcasses. Left unattended, these carcasses could easily spread disease and be dangerous to both man and beast. However, the marabou performs the useful chore of garbage removal. Together with vultures—also birds of prey with healthy appetites—they survey the plains for an abandoned kill. When one is located, the marabous will wait for the more aggressive vultures to open the carcass with their strong curved beaks. At a  convenient moment, a marabou, with its long bill drawn like a surgical knife, will make a quick dash to the carrion, grab a piece of flesh, and return to the sidelines awaiting another opportunity. When the vultures have eaten their fill, it is time for the marabous to fight over any scraps of flesh left. The marabous will consume almost anything that can go down their throats, except for the bones. Pieces of meat weighing as much as 20 ounces [600 g] are swallowed with ease.

In recent years the marabou has extended its sanitation work beyond the wild. The bird has lost most of its fear of man and is now a common visitor at city and village garbage dumps. The result? A cleaner environment. The marabou even sifts through the waste fluids from slaughterhouses, looking for any remaining morsels. Just how tough this bird can be is illustrated by the following example. While rummaging for scraps around a slaughterhouse in western Kenya, a marabou managed to swallow a butcher knife. A few days later, the knife—clean and shiny—was found near the same spot, while the marabou that had regurgitated it carried on its business as usual, having suffered no apparent ill effects!

The Marabou’s Future

While its closest relative, the greater adjutant stork of Asia, is diminishing, the African marabou flourishes. It has no known enemies in the wild. In times past, the marabou’s most cruel enemy was man. The large stork was shot, and its soft backside feathers were plucked to add beauty to women’s headdresses. “It is almost inconceivable,” says the book Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills of the World, “that such delicate and beautiful plumes, when adorning a fan or some finery dear to a woman’s heart, are the product of this huge, gaunt and repulsive looking scavenger.” Fortunately for these birds, such wanton destruction has diminished over the years, and their numbers are again on the rise. No doubt our brief look at the marabou has revealed that it simply does not deserve to be scorned and maligned. Its efficiency and industriousness in cleaning the environment benefit us greatly. Though it is not the most beautiful of birds, it still brings glory to its Creator in its own humble way.—Psalm 148:7, 10.

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The bird’s heavy, wedge-shaped bill can grow to a length of more than ten inches

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The marabou has a wingspan of more than eight feet

[Credit Line]

© Joe McDonald

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Young marabous receive marvelous care

[Credit Line]

© M.P. Kahl/VIREO

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The biological function of the marabou’s pouch is not yet known

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The nest is sometimes constructed 100 feet above the ground