letters from nairobi

marabou storks, the undertakers
November 23, 2011, 19:03
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

It’s difficult to exaggerate how repulsive the marabou stork is.

In Nairobi, there is one place where the massive birds congregate – in the upper branches of ragged thorn trees near Nyayo sports stadium, at one particular roundabout near the airport. Drive down the tree-lined road and look up – you’ll see them perched, motionless, their bowed heads silhouetted against the sky.

Viewed from a closer vantage point, you realize how terrifying they are. The first thing you’re struck by is the bird’s sheer size – at five feet tall, they are thought to have one of the largest wingspreads of any living bird: 12 or more feet across.

To put this in perspective, I am 5’3” tall.

The next thing you notice is the beak: two feet of sun-bleached grey bone that tapers to a razor-sharp tip. It’s used for ripping the flesh out from inside carcasses.

The marabou stork has a nickname: the Undertaker Bird. With a balding, scabby head, drooping, pink air sacs, and beady eyes, it’s been called “one of the ugliest creatures of the world.” According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, the birds “evolved their naked heads and necks as an adaptation for feeding on large animal carcasses without getting their head feathers soiled with blood and gore.” Its legs are dark black but appear a whitish color due to the storks’ practice of squirting excrement onto their legs, where it dries and forms a crust.

And then there are its habits.

The Undertaker Bird is a scavenger. It mainly survives on carrion, scraps and feces, but has become dependent on living off of human garbage. The thorn trees they inhabit in Nairobi are close to large, festering slums where piles of rotting garbage have become a reliable food source. The birds have been known to devour virtually anything that they can swallow, “including shoes and pieces of metal,” and can lash out violently when denied food.

All in all, a revolting creature.

My description really can’t do it justice – below are a few photos I found on the interwebs (there’s no way I am getting close enough to take pictures):

For scale:

And, apparently, I’m not alone in my fear:



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