Wood storks are large wading birds, with scaly heads, long legs, and downward-curved bills. They are widespread throughout Central America and large areas of South America, and breeding populations are found across Florida, where the wetland environment of the Everglades provides an ideal habitat for their preferred diet - fresh fish!
The only breeding stork native to North America, wood storks are found in wetland habitats with plentiful supplies of fresh fish in freshwater pools and brackish streams. They can be seen wading through shallow waters in large groups using their bills to sense prey. So, let's get into it, what do wood storks eat?
Wood storks fish in pools that are between 15 and 50 cm (0.5 and 1.6 ft) in depth. They tend to mainly consume fish from 2.5 to 30 cm (1 to 6 in) in length, and will hunt and eat whatever is available, rather than having a particular preference for one type of fish over another. As well as fish, wood storks often eat tadpoles, crustaceans, small amphibians, and other aquatic creatures.
Wood storks practice highly developed strategies for hunting fresh fish. Read on to learn more about how they use their bills, feet, and even their wings to find and successfully catch their prey.
Wood Stork eating a fish
Wood storks live and breed in woodland environments close to either brackish or freshwater water sources. They catch live fish to eat as the main component of their diet, but will also feed on dead fish they may come across in the water. In addition to the fish that they consume in large quantities, they also eat shrimps and other crustaceans, frogs, lizards, insects, and even small birds.
The diet of a wood stork in the wild varies according to season and availability of fish stocks. When fresh fish is in low supply, wood storks have been observed to wait for scraps at sites where humans catch and clean fish they have caught.
The type of fish consumed varies geographically, with Florida populations mainly consuming sunfish, yellow bullhead, marsh killifish, flagfish, and sailfin molly. Where possible, larger fish are preferred.
Sunfish are arguably one of the most common fish species consumed by wood storks, but it's unclear if this is because of the prevalence of this species in the preferred habitat or because of selection.
Other than fish, they also consume plant material, insects (beetles and grasshoppers), tadpoles, water snails, crayfish, crabs, grass shrimp, birds, small mammals, and reptiles.
A wood stork walking with a freshly caught fish
Wood storks in captivity should follow the same diet as their counterparts in the wild. An abundant and accessible supply of live fish to catch would reflect their natural dietary and nourishment requirements.
In captivity, this food supply can be sustained and provided all year round, without the necessary seasonal adaptations experienced by birds living in the wild.
Wood storks feed throughout the day and night, and do not rely on daylight hours to be able to hunt for fish. When they are feeding juveniles, wood storks need to follow an intense feeding program to ensure they can supply enough food to their young, who need to be fed up to 15 times a day.
As well as being highly skilled and tactical fishers, wood storks are opportunistic predators, and will spontaneously prey on small mammals or birds when they spot them on the banks of lagoons or pools.
Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) in flight, Florida
Wood storks are experts at foraging for food in wetland environments, including shallow marshes and swamps. They often feed in groups, wading slowly, yet purposefully, using their long curved bills to feel for prey in the water.
Although wood storks also visually scan for fish beneath the water surface, in muddy waters, they rely on a well-honed technique of using their bills to feel for prey. When something touches its open bill, or it senses even the tiniest vibration of a nearby fish, in a super-quick reflex movement, it will quickly snap its bill closed and swallow its prey whole.
Another method used by wood storks to locate prey is to quickly flick their wings or pump their feet up and down in the water. This disturbs any nearby fish, making them easier to catch. As wood storks regularly feed in groups, the collective effect of this en-masse stamping can trigger a “feeding frenzy.”
Wood Stork hunting for fish
Because the wood stork’s feeding method relies on touch rather than vision, they do not need daylight to be able to successfully see and catch their prey. They feed throughout the day and night, at times when it is most productive for them to do so, such as low tide at tidal creeks, and moving to freshwater locations at high tide.
In winter, a wood stork’s diet consists almost solely of fish, as well as some insects. During the dry season (November to May), studies show that nearly 100 percent of their food intake is from fish caught in the pools and lagoons through which they wade.
Wood Stork foraging in a shallow lagoon, Pinellas County, Florida
In summer months, wood storks consume a more varied diet, with fresh fish supplemented by crustaceans, crabs, small amphibians, and insects. In the wet season (from June to October), water levels are naturally higher, meaning wood storks cannot rely exclusively on their usual feeding methods, which are adapted to work more effectively in shallow water.
Like their parents, young wood stork chicks mainly eat fish, and require a regular and intense feeding schedule to support their development to adulthood. A week-old chick needs to be fed up to 15 times a day, with both parent birds providing them with food. During a typical breeding season, the adult birds will need to catch in excess of 400 pounds of fish to supply enough nourishment for both themselves and their chicks.
Wood Stork chicks can be fed up to 15 times a day
Wood storks are wild birds and are keen foragers and experts at finding their own food, so it is a wise idea to leave them to do what they do best. In certain states, Florida, for example, it is prohibited for members of the public to feed endangered and threatened wildlife species, which includes wood storks.
Like all birds, wood storks drink water, which they take from the ponds and pools in which they feed.
Wood Stork drinking water from a pond
The natural habitats of wood storks are shallow wetlands and lagoons with abundant supplies of fresh fish. Tree cover alongside the water provides an ideal spot for colonies of wood storks to build their nests close together. Wood storks are resourceful hunters and will be attracted to sites where they can access the large quantities of fish that they need to survive, such as shallow lakes, mangroves, and tidal creeks.
Wood storks eat a primarily fish-based diet, but will also eat frogs, crabs, crustaceans, and insects. They may also eat small lizards and snakes, and take young birds from nests if they get the opportunity.
A wood stork coming in to land
No matter how well-intentioned, people should refrain from feeding wood storks bread, cereal, and other processed food that would not form part of their natural diet.
Wood storks are carnivores, and their natural diet consists of fish, small amphibians, and reptiles. Due to the nature of their feeding process, it is not uncommon for birds to ingest algae and other aquatic plants while they are scouring the waters for fish to prey on.
In Florida, it is illegal to feed any bird or wild animal that is named on the state’s list of endangered and threatened species without a special licence. Wood storks were classified as endangered in Florida in 1984, and although their status was recategorized down to threatened in 2014, visitors and residents must continue to resist the temptation to feed them or risk a heavy fine.
Foraging wood stork in a marsh, Naples, Florida
Although fish make up the bulk of a wood stork’s diet, they are also opportunistic feeders, and may eat ducklings and other young birds if the chance arises.
Wood storks do sometimes eat reptiles, including snakes and small alligators. However, they are not a significant part of a wood stork’s diet.
Fish is the major component of a wood stork’s diet, both in winter and summer. Wood storks typically hunt and capture live fish to eat, although they will also eat dead fish that they find in the waters. They are not particularly fussy about a particular type of fish and will hunt and eat whatever is most available.
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