ST. PETERSBURG — The wood storks are ready when El Cap opens.
By 11 a.m., just ahead of the lunch rush, the hulking birds creep into the parking lot of the burger joint. They plot break-ins at the trash cans behind the restaurant and peer at incoming diners with beady black eyes. El Cap has posted signs advising folks not to feed the bald-headed birds, which are a protected species. But a hungry wood stork is persistent.
“They would get so bold that they would get on people’s tables and steal their hamburgers,” said Larry Chopard, El Cap’s night manager. “We have a little squirt gun with water in it, like ‘Go away.’”
At least one wood stork visits El Cap every day, Chopard said. Sometimes there are two. Other times, a clatter of six storks. The human regulars at the restaurant have come to expect them. Restaurant staff bestowed a nickname on their most outgoing avian regular: Big Mac.
Florida is home to many wading birds — the graceful great blue heron, the candy-pink roseate spoonbill, charming little white ibises with bright red beaks. None look as prehistoric as the wood stork. The creature has a plump, almond-shaped body propped up with dark skinny legs, knobby knees and wide, pink webbed feet. Their feathers are mostly white, save for the black iridescent smears on their tail and the underside of their wings. It’s the head of the wood stork that’s most likely to strike fear, covered in scaly, black mottled skin and ending in a long beak that curves like a sickle.
“They aren’t the most attractive birds,” Chopard acknowledged. “But they’re cute in their own way.”
The El Cap parking lot isn’t the only hopping wood stork haunt in town. A 2021 post on the St. Petersburg subreddit, for example, detailed groups of the birds chilling in a stormwater pond behind a Goodwill, coexisting with spoonbills at Isla Del Sol golf course, cruising Publix parking lots and “begging for fries at Checkers.”
So what’s the deal with these creatures and their voracious appetite for standard American fare?
Turns out, wood storks play an important role in Florida’s ecosystem. They also could use our help: Once listed as an endangered species, wood storks were reclassified as threatened in 2014.
Historically, Florida has been home to the largest concentration of wood storks in the country, said Shawn Clem, research director of Audubon Florida’s Western Everglades Research Center at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Wood storks are drawn to the Sunshine State for its coastal areas and wetlands, which provide an ample feeding ground.
Many of Florida’s other wading birds feed by sight, looking for prey and then swooping in for a single snack at a time. Wood storks, on the other hand, are tactile feeders, figuring out what’s for lunch by sticking their beaks in the water and feeling around. They munch on anything from frogs and fish to insects and the occasional mouse.
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During nesting season, which usually runs from February to June, Florida’s wood storks make their home in trees surrounded by water. They thrive during the dry season, when lower water levels means a more concentrated selection of fish, which have less space to move around.
Bonus points if the wood stork’s nest is near water where alligators live.
“They know their nests are going to be protected from mammalian predators by alligators,” Clem said. “Things like raccoons aren’t going to swim through the water and climb the trees and get the nestlings or the eggs because alligators are going to protect.”
Wood storks have high food requirements, and bring back lots of grub to feed their young.
“Alligators are benefiting because they’re going to get whatever falls out of the nest.”
As development has crept in, causing degradation of habitats throughout Florida, the local populations have changed.
“We’ve seen wood storks push farther north than they ever were,” Clem said. “Wood storks have been nesting in Georgia and South Carolina, increasing numbers in the last couple of decades.”
Wood storks have also grown used to being in urban environments, adapting to the changing world around them.
Clem, for example, was surprised when she first moved to Florida for her undergraduate education and saw the creatures in droves around Eckerd College.
“I remember being struck by these strange-looking, tall and bald-headed birds,” she said. “They remind me of undertakers. They kind of stand back really still and look around.”
There’s another reason to pay attention to these birds besides guarding your lunch. Wood storks are what’s known as an indicator species.
“They depend on a healthy ecosystem the same way we depend on a healthy ecosystem,” Clem said. “Once we see a decline in a species like this, we need to say, ‘What are we doing that’s caused this?’”
The Tampa Bay area’s local population is stable, and larger than it was in the past, said Mark Rachal, the coastal islands sanctuaries manager for Audubon Florida. As the super colonies of wood storks that once lived in South Florida spread north, our local population increased. In 2003, there were about 500 nesting pairs in the Tampa Bay region. A 2019 count documented about 1,000 pairs.
Research indicates that the local numbers have hit a plateau. There are lots of little islands in the region, but not all of them are appropriate for nesting birds. So instead of cypress wetland habitats, the storks have moved to other options, like retention ponds and roadside ditches.
“They’ve really kind of gone to a Plan B for their nesting strategy,” Rachal said.
The best way to support wood storks is to implement wetland restoration efforts, wrote Lara Milligan, the natural resources agent at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Pinellas County.
“This doesn’t have to be on a massive scale either,” she wrote. “We are seeing wood storks foraging in residential areas where stormwater ponds exist. We have an estimated 76,000 stormwater ponds in Florida, so ensuring those are well maintained and providing healthy habitats for their prey (fish, crayfish, amphibians, reptiles), we will be benefiting wood storks and many other wetland dependent species.”
Over the years, Rachal’s organization has fielded numerous calls from people who want to help in other ways.
“For some reason, folks like feeding wood storks hot dogs,” he said. “I don’t know why that’s the snack of choice.”
And while wood storks are flexible in their diet, he discourages folks from giving them food. Instead, concerned bird lovers can pay attention to local pollution, like the pesticides put in lawns or entangling debris that could trap a wood stork.
“We definitely want our wild birds to remain wild,” he said.
correction: Lara Milligan spoke about wetland restoration efforts. The story previously attributed this information to the wrong source from UF/IFAS.