IYIP BLOG: Meet the Undertaker (A Study in Ornithology)

What’s that in the trees?

They say God loves all his creatures equally. I have proof otherwise. See, there’s this bird that lurks in the trees of Kampala. It’s massive, reaching over 152 cm in height. That’s almost five feet.  Its wingspan has been rumoured to reach up to 13 feet, which is the largest wingspan of any living bird. It will feed on anything from bits of metal to old shoes. They say it has even killed small children when angry. In short, the Marabou stork is a terrifying blight on the sub-Saharan landscape. Unsurprisingly, its nickname is the ‘Undertaker Bird’.

The undertaker bird is a common site in and around Kampala.

Marabou storks are commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in heavily populated areas. In Kampala, you’ll find them at the golf course, near Parliament or lounging around the police station. At first glance it looks more goofy than threatening. It’s very tall, with skinny, hollow white legs, bald on top with a huge bill. But don’t be fooled. If it can eat flamingos, it won’t be long before they figure out how to eat humans.

They hang out in trees and can be hard to spot at times. Clearly this is a strategy they’ve developed to spy on humans undetected. Wikipedia, the bastion of ornithological knowledge, says the marabou stork is known as the Undertaker Bird “due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and… skinny white legs…” But the storks are also scavengers and its baldhead also serves a purpose: “a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood and other substances when the bird’s head was inside a large corpse…” Proof, perhaps, that the Storks have malevolently evolved to adapt to its cold-blooded ways?

Casually hanging out or plotting their next move?

History further proves that there is sinister and evil side to the storks. Archaeological studies found that the original, prehistoric Marabou Storks were originally over six feet tall. Located on the isolated Flores Island, the humans and birds were subject rare phenomenon that occurs on isolated islands: the larger species shrink and the smaller species increase. The humans shrank to roughly three feet tall over the course of several generations and the storks increased. There were also dwarf elephants and giant rats on this island. The hunters became the hunted: evidence suggests that the storks hunted and ate humans. The entire human population died off, possibly due to hunting from the storks. In fact, scientists even found the remains of a young boy who had marks and scratches on his body consistent with a bird attack. He was killed by the original Marabou Storks.

According to the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, “Flores lacked any large-bodied mammalian predators… in their absence, birds like storks moved in to fill that role.” While there is no evidence that the Marabou stork currently eat people, history suggests it may only be a matter of time before they once again evolve to that state.

Can you imagine running into this almost 5 foot tall bird on the street?

And so I rest my case. Ugly and potentially murderous. When the local people refer to them as those ‘godforsaken birds”, I believe it!

– Mariah Griffin-Angus, Governance Project Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Uganda 2012

Mariah is also a featured blogger on the Huffington Post Canada while she is in Uganda. Click here to read her blog posts for them. 


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