Wood storks are a threatened species of bird that can be found hanging out in wetlands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. They are occasionally seen in all states along the Mississippi River and as far north as Ontario. Mostly they stay in the Southeast though.
In the 1930’s, there were estimated to be about 20,000 breeding pairs of wood storks in the U.S. Now, there are around 8,000 pairs, which is an improvement from a low of 5,000 pairs in the 1970’s. The decline is attributed mostly to loss of habitat and the altering of the water flow in the Everglades.
Wood storks have a very specific feeding strategy that requires certain conditions to be met to ensure an adequate food source. The water has to be just the right depth, and the concentration of fish in the water needs to be rather high. They use a technique known as tacto-location to catch their food. In water that’s 6-10 inches deep, the stork will keep its bill partly open as it probes the water searching for prey. When a fish touches its bill, it snaps it closed with an amazing reaction time of 25 milliseconds!
Over the course of the nesting season, wood stork pairs and their chicks require an estimated 443 pounds of fish to be successful. In order for this to be possible, there has to be just the right amount of rain to make the water deep enough for the fish to reproduce adequately, and then a perfect amount of evaporation of water during the dry season for the fish to become concentrated in water that’s the preferred 6-10 inches deep. For this reason, only about 42% of nests successfully fledge at least one chick.
The wood stork is a colonial species. They nest in big colonies, particularly at two protected locations in South Florida. In Florida, wood storks lay their eggs in the fall and the baby birds fledge in February or March. During a successful breeding season, there are dozens of nests full of squawking, hungry babies in a rookery during late winter and early spring. 2018 was a phenomenal year for fledglings due to the heavy rains Florida received during the rainy season that year followed by an adequate dry season. Subsequent years have not been nearly as successful. It’s incredible how dependent these birds are on rainfall being just right. Wood storks’ rookeries are shared with anhingas, great blue herons, great egrets, and other wading birds. It’s an amazing sight to behold!
Wood storks are one of Florida’s most fascinating birds. It’s vitally important for Everglades restoration projects to continue forward progress to help protect and defend these and other wading birds in South Florida. The wood stork is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but this isn’t enough. Their roosting sites need to be protected from development, and water quality needs to be monitored and vastly improved to help them continue to live and thrive here in Florida. This is one of the reasons the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project is so important. You can find more information about this project on Audubon Florida’s website.