by Nicole Gugino
About the Wood Stork: Denizens of the Wetlands
Wood storks are tall, white dwellers of freshwater or brackish wetlands and swamps. These monogamous birds are all white except for the black flight feathers on their wings and tail and their featherless head.
In the wild they live an average of 11-18 years, can be two to four feet in height and weigh approximately seven to ten pounds.
The wood stork is the only stork to breed in the U.S. Wood storks are social animals that feed in flocks and sometimes several pairs nest in a single tree.
A group of storks can be called many different things, including "a clatter of storks", "a filth of storks", "a muster of storks", "a phalanx of storks", and a "swoop of storks."
Though wood storks are non-migrant birds, individual pairs will travel up to 50 miles from their nest in search of food. Wood Storks are piscivorous meaning they feed mainly on fish.
The wood stork has a unique way of catching its prey. They open their bill and stick it in the water, then wait for the touch of an unfortunate fish that wanders too close. When they feel a fish, the stork can snap its bill shut in as little as 25 milliseconds.
Threats & Conservation Status: Effects of Habitat Loss
Wood storks have been listed on the Federal Endangered Species List since 1984. Their small population size is due to habitat loss and low reproduction rates.
In the 1930s wood storks numbered between 16,000-20,000. But by the 1960s, this number decreased to 10,000 pairs and plummeted to around 5,000 pairs in the 1970s.
The current population is about 11,000 pairs. Their numbers remain stable, yet the species is still considered endangered in some southeastern states.
Wood Storks are considered a low productive species. They will not start a breeding season unless there are enough food supplies. The time of the breeding depends on weather conditions and appropriate nesting conditions.
Wood Storks can lose their offspring due to predators, such as Raccoons and Alligators. Human disturbance also plays a major role in preventing successful breeding. Once Wood Storks feel they are threatened, they are gone for good. Thus, a wide range of threats leads to a high death rate among the young and hinders population growth.
The wood stork’s main threat is destruction of habitat that supplies them with necessary food. It is estimated that a Wood Stork family needs over 400 pounds of food during a breeding season.
A portion of the wetlands in South Florida has been decreased enormously in the last decade. As the growing human population expands, habitat and water supplies are taken away from nature. Introduction of water controlling techniques has changed the cycle of wetlands and interfered with wood storks’ feeding pattern. Artificially managed hydrological regimes has resulted in long droughts and rain periods and caused wood storks to experience reproduction failure.
BP Oil Disaster Impacts: Louisiana Marshlands in Danger
Oil has seeped into Louisiana’s fragile marshlands, which are critical to wildlife. But the soft soils in the marshlands pose a challenge to cleanup efforts, since the rakes and pressure hoses used to clean rocks and sand would tear the marshes apart. Officials are considering controlled burns of the oil to clean out the marshes, though that could prove just as lethal to marsh species.
There are 32 National Wildlife Refuges along the Gulf coast. The Breton National Wildlife Refuge, the country’s second oldest refuge, was contaminated by oil in May and is home to several endangered and threatened species. Marshes are difficult to clean-up once contaminated by oil because they are too sensitive for aggressive clean-up efforts and the oil in the water is too dispersed to be captured by skimmers.
Although the leak is sealed the persistence of oil in the gulf waters and coastal wetlands will continue to exact a toll on the region’s ecosystem for years to come.
Glimmers of Hope:
Wood storks in are slowly but steadily growing in population and have had several successful breading seasons in the past few years.
Although the wood stork is at risk of oil contamination from direct contact in oiled marshes or from contaminated prey, measures are being taken to help the wood storks and other marshland birds by creating new wetlands that scientists hope will divert migratory birds from oiled beaches and waters.
The $20 million effort is being led by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Farmers in Southern states are being paid to flood hundreds of acres hoping to attract birds on their way to wintering grounds in Central and South America.
Exactly how attractive to migrating birds, who instinctually return to the same places every year and usually prefer coastal beaches and wetlands to inland areas, these sanctuaries may prove to be remains unclear.
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