The only stork and the largest wading bird that breeds in the United States, the Wood Stork is a distinctive wetland bird found primarily in the Southeast. It stands a meter tall, and has a dark, featherless head and upper neck, as well as white plumage, with dark iridescent wing- and tail feathers. Regional names for this species reflect its striking appearance: Ironhead, Flinthead, and Pond Gannet.
Like many other storks, the Wood Stork is a tactile feeder, capturing food by feel (Kahl 1963a). (Kahl's critical behavior studies established a basic understanding of the species that underlined most studies and debate that followed.) Although this bird can feed visually, tactile feeding allows it to forage in wetlands with concentrated prey, as well as in murky waters, without depending on sight. In south Florida, extensive wetlands and high concentrations of prey due to evaporative drawdowns during the dry season have historically supported large breeding colonies of this species. However, this population has declined significantly since the 1960s, as a result of water management practices in southern Florida and degradation of the Everglades (Ogden 1994). These changes have focused attention on this species as a bioindicator of the health of the Everglades and other shallow wetlands regionwide. Restoration of these wetlands will be crucial for the recovery of this stork.
Population declines of the Wood Stork in south Florida have been balanced to some extent by increased movement into central and northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina; studies in northern Florida have examined geographic trends and variations in breeding success (Rodgers et al. 1996c, Rodgers and Smith 1997).
From northern Florida through coastal South Carolina, wetlands are smaller and fish not as concentrated as they are in south Florida. As a result, the ecology of this stork differs there: The birds feed alone or in small groups, among low densities of larger prey, and they usually breed successfully (Depkin et al. 1992, Coulter and Bryan 1993, Coulter and Bryan 1995).