Marabou storks eat everything along the roads except the cars
NAIROBI, Kenya––Marabou storks have replaced the street dogs.
Twenty years ago the drive from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport past Nairobi National Park and into the central city via the Mombasa highway was an exercise in start-and-stop driving and sudden swerves to avoid the ubiquitous mongrel street dogs, foraging for scraps, handouts, rats and refuse amid speeding cars, pedestrians, plodding donkeys pulling overloaded carts, and sidewalk vendors of tea-and-hot-milk, bananas, newspapers, and practically anything else that could be displayed with one’s hands and sold from a shoulder bag.
Donkey gone, dog gone
Today the donkeys are gone, mostly sold to slaughter, and so are the free-roaming dogs, as the habitat changed in ways not conducive to the survival of dogs who must scavenge among traffic for a living.
To a considerable extent, the dogs thrived because of the abundance of donkeys. The undigested seeds and grain in donkey dung fed rats and mice along the roadsides, where the dogs could hunt them. The dogs could and did also eat donkey dung themselves. And dogs could readily dodge the slow-moving donkey carts. Few if any dogs were ever road-killed by donkeys.
The donkeys have been replaced by mini-vans, light pickup trucks, and of course more cars, who may have road-killed more dogs per year for a time, as transport in and around Nairobi became mechanized, than local animal control agencies caught in decades.
Most of the dogs were gone before the constant gridlock of today––at least in daylight hours––relegated speeding vehicles to rural areas and distant memory.
The closest approach to a speeding vehicle in central Nairobi today is the quick acceleration of an alert driver into any opening that may accommodate forward momentum.
The sidewalk vendors have come off the sidewalks to saunter among the vehicles, even on the busiest alleged expressways, some of them doing a rapid business on roller-blades.
In place of dogs, marabou storks strut along the verges, forage in the ditches, roost in trees overhanging the roadway, and squirt acidic poop on vehicles unfortunate enough to be caught in the traffic below.
Storks rise above the chaos
Where once there were easily 100 dogs to be seen on a 40-minute drive from the airport to mid-city, today there are easily 100 marabou storks, doing everything the dogs used to do except bark––and, of course, chase away marabou storks.
While street dogs could only try to dodge motor vehicles, marabou storks rise easily above them.
Much as feral cats claimed the habitat and rodent-hunting roles abandoned by street dogs, coincidental with the U.S. becoming motorized in the mid-20th century, and much as macaques have taken advantage of rapidly thinning street dog populations to invade most of the cities of India and Southeast Asia, marabou storks are rapidly taking over urbanized Africa, from Kenya and Uganda to South Africa.
“Behave more like vultures”
Observes the South Africa Birdlife web site, “Marabou storks behave more like vultures than [most] storks,” who are primarily wading birds found in and around marshes, “and will eat just about any kind of animal, dead or alive. Living prey includes termites, fish, locusts, grasshoppers, army-worm caterpillars, frogs, rodents, crocodile eggs and hatchlings, quelea nestlings, doves, young and adult flamingos, cormorant nestlings, and pelican chicks.”
That may describe the feeding habits of rural marabou storks. Urban marabou storks, as in Nairobi, feast on any and all scraps of human food waste, along with any and all other animals feeding on human food waste, especially rats, mice, and any insects big enough to be worth the trouble of catching. Cockroaches may be a marabou stork favorite.
The “undertaker bird”
Somewhat surprisingly, marabou storks so far do not seem to have attracted the sort of attention, either positive or negative, that street dogs tend to––possibly because they are quieter, and are animals no one would mistake for household pets or try to befriend. Humans tend to stay a safe distance from marabou storks, if they can, and marabou storks tend to reciprocate, except when convenience recommends taking over a rooftop or a neglected roadside park.
Observes Weird Nature writer Beth Elias, “The idea of storks usually conjures up adorable images of white-feathered birds delivering bundles of joy. The reality of the marabou stork is anything but. The large African bird – aptly nicknamed the ‘Undertaker Bird’ – looks dead, but is actually a garbage-eating, pooping-all-over-itself, living nightmare. Marabou storks have been voted the ugliest bird on Earth, and given their poop-covered feet and scabby heads, that title might be considered generous.
“The marabou doesn’t poop all over itself because it doesn’t care about hygiene,” Elias. “Coating their legs with their own feces regulates their body temperature. Their heads,” like those of vultures, are “bald to prevent blistering and infections,” while eating from the innards of dead animals.
Also of note, marabou storks––in contrast to the promiscuity of street dogs––mate for life. Both parents help to raise their young for months. Marabou storks do not reach full maturity, mate, and begin to raise young of their own until they are four years old, so do not rapidly become conspicuously over-abundant in neighborhoods that were formerly stork-free.
On the other hand, marabou storks will quickly colonize a neighborhood where a new food source appears, such as the offal heaps from a recently opened slaughterhouse or curbside slaughtering facility, called in rural Kenya a “slab.”
11-foot wingspan, “sword-sized” beaks
With a wingspan measuring up to 11 feet, marabou storks are not a bird anyone lightly challenges.
“With sword-sized beaks, they glide effortlessly through the air, confidently showing off their ugly look,” wrote Oscar Pilipili for Standard Media in 2009, noting that “Many Nairobi dwellers wish they could be kicked out of their habitat.
“The population of the marabou stork, one of the largest scavenger birds of East Africa, appears to have exploded in nearly all major towns,” Pilipili continued. “In Nairobi, they have a large colony on trees on Uhuru Highway near Nyayo Stadium and Harry Thuku Road next to the University of Nairobi. The birds are also prominent at Moi Forces Academy, at the Dandora garbage dump and other areas such as the abattoirs. Where they nest like on Uhuru Highway, a casual observer may be forgiven for imagining that a campaign was on to paint the nearby roofs and roads white.”
That was back when the Nairobi marabou stork colonies could still be counted.
“Best advised to learn to live with storks”
“Many Nairobi residents have expressed varied views over the alarming population of the scavenger birds, with most seeking action to reduce them,” Pilipili said. “But the Kenya Wildlife Service, under whose jurisdiction they fall, says the residents would best be advised to learn to live with the storks. KWS argues that the scavenger cleans more than it pollutes the environment.”
Explained Kenya Wildlife Service ornithologist Alfred Owino, “Marabou storks reduce the spread of disease by cleaning up dirt, including animal carcasses, from the environment. Indeed, in some areas like around abattoirs where they feed, they are nicknamed ‘health inspectors’. Marabou storks have many positive effects and are a nuisance only in nesting areas, which they make dirty.”
“What leads these birds to the city?”
Suggested National Environment Management Authority deputy director for education David Ongare, “Just like headache is an indicator of an underlying ailment, we must find out what leads to the relocation of the birds to these city localities.”
But the loss of the free-roaming urban dog population was already evident.
Counting pet dogs, Nairobi probably has at least as many canines as ever––maybe more. Pet supply stores have sprung up even in the slums. Those dogs, however, are mostly fed and kept at home, as guards and companions. No longer are the majority of Nairobi dogs enterprising scavengers.
Marabou stork rescue team
The Nairobi marabou stork invasion followed by 20-30 years a similar invasion of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda––which was initially welcomed.
“Prior to their movement to Kampala in the 1970s, they used to occupy swampy parts of Lake Kyoga and southern Sudan,” recalled Gerald Tenywa of the New Vision newspaper, when in February 2007 the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, formerly the Entebbe Zoo, “sent out a rescue team to save the birds from seven trees that Kampala City Council was about to cut down.
“Pedestrians keenly watched the giant crane brought to assist the rescue team to reach the nests hosting the chicks,” wrote Tenywa. “Each of seven young marabou storks, estimated to be about two months old, rested in the tender warm hands of the wildlife staff because they could not fly.”
The rescue followed “An incident three weeks ago,” Tenywa recounted, “in which trees were mercilessly cut down, destroying nests and killing some marabous, leaving others exposed to danger.”
That incident generated public outrage and widespread concern for the storks, which––if not pretty, and at times messy––are charismatic.
A year later, Tenywa reported the eviction of marabou storks from State House Nakasero, the official residence of Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president since 1986.
“Museveni loves birds, but they were becoming a nuisance,” said Uganda Wildlife Agency spokesperson Vernice Mirembe, adding “We were ordered not to hurt them in the process of relocating them.”
Two tons of trash a day
Explained Nature Uganda director Achilles Byaruhanga, “The marabous have been attracted by the large amount of waste in Kampala. This, together with the strong native trees, has turned Kampala into good habitat. The only solution to get rid of marabous is to clean up the city, because even if the trees where they perch are cut down, they would relocate to the rooftops.”
Remembered Tenywa, “About a decade ago, the Kampala City Council cut down a number of trees to chase away the birds. However, the birds relocated to the roofs and garbage bins, remaining a persistent reminder to the city residents that the Kampala City Council does not collect most of their garbage. Kampala generates about 1,500 tonnes of garbage daily and only 40% is removed.”
Recounted Byaruhanga, “There were only 11 nests of marabous in 1969 around [the Kampala neighborhood of] Nateete,” perhaps as many as were found around Nairobi between 10 and 20 years ago, “but today the total population is about 2,000 birds.”
Reckoned Tenywa, “Each marabou stork eats about two kilograms daily, implying that 2,000 of them can clear up to two metric tons of waste every day.”
Altogether, Kampala currently supports about 10,000 marabou storks, whose daily refuse consumption appears to be about ten times the volume collected per day by the city refuse service, as reported in the March 2014 edition of the Journal of Waste Management.