The undertaker

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The marabou stork is unmissable against a bushveld backdrop. Huge and lumbering, it is most often seen around carcasses and in the company of vultures. First and foremost a scavenger, the marabou subsists on scraps of meat worked free from carcasses by vultures, as it is unable to cut meat with its straight bill.

It is an opportunistic feeder, picking fish from pools as the water recedes during dry spells and seeking out refuse dumps for scraps in suburbia. They are able to catch small reptiles and rodents, but these lazy birds prefer to stand around motionless for most of the day, waiting to see what pickings will present themselves, in the form of insects and caterpillars. Marabou storks are also known to seek out veld fires, so that they may easily pick at panicked animals as they flee from the flames. They will eat just about anything, living or dead.

When they do take to the air, they are surprisingly graceful and can soar at high altitudes, scanning the landscape below for opportunities. Like most birds, the bones of their legs are hollow, but they have the added advantage of hollow toes to assist them in flight.

The marabou is superbly adapted to its circumstances. It has hardly any feathering on its head or neck, which allows it to clean itself easily after delving around in a rotting carcass, although this does make the bird vulnerable to sunburn and heatstroke.

On hot days, they deposit excrement on themselves to cool their legs. This has the double benefit of staining the legs a white colour, which reflects the harsh rays of the sun. In cool weather, the birds rest on their tarsal joints (knees), which brings them closer to the ground and helps to keep them warm.

The gular air sac at the lower end of the marabou stork's throat, although mainly used in courtship displays, is also instrumental in temperature regulation. When the sac is inflated, it assists with cooling or warming the blood flowing past the area as required.

The word marabou means 'ugly misshapen old man' in French, and this is a fair description of this bird, but handsome is as handsome does, and the marabou stork performs a vital function in the ecosystem by cleaning up after the predators.

Keep a lookout for the 'undertaker' the next time you are at a kill.

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Tuesday, 17 October 2017