In Search of Sanctuary | Science | Smithsonian

In Search of Sanctuary

As its Florida habitat disappears, the American wood stork, our largest wading bird, is migrating northward to new nesting grounds.

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Florida's deep, inviting swamps, dense with saw grass and water moccasins, have traditionally offered nesting grounds to the American wood stork. While there are 17 species of storks worldwide, only one species, Mycteria americana, nests in North America.

The storks roughly resemble herons or egrets or ibis; but DNA studies show wood storks are actually kin to vultures. Wood storks once bred from Argentina up to, mainly, southern Florida. But by the mid-1980s, after water diversion projects disrupted water fluctuations, only 250 pairs of wood storks still nested in the Everglades National Park.

The birds, it turns out, have voted with their wings. "They've been breeding in Georgia and South Carolina regularly since 1981," wildlife biologist Larry Bryan says. "In fact, in the last two years, up to a third of the entire U.S. breeding population has been in these two states."

 Water cycles, it turns out, are the key to attracting the birds. Storks time their nesting, when they need lots of food, to low-water periods that concentrate fish in pools.

For now, these wading birds seem to be at least holding their own. While huge colonies have not been established in the more northern locations, the overall wood stork population in the United States does seem to be stabilizing at about 7,000 pairs.

A sudden cold snap could, however, imperil the Georgia and South Carolina wood stork colonies. Luckily, plans are afoot to restore the Everglades. As John Ogden, of the South Florida Water Management District, puts it: "We're going to get those South Carolina and Georgia wood storks back!"

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