Monday, April 8, 2013

The Rain Bringer

As I write this blog post the unpredictable weather of March in St. Louis, Missouri, howls outside my window and delivers an unprecedented 12-inch snowfall to our area.

Marvelous March--it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.  It is also the host of my favorite holiday, Saint Patrick’s Day!  So it seemed like an excellent idea to talk about lucky birds for this blog.

Unfortunately, historically there are not a lot of birds one would consider lucky.  To ornithologists and bird watchers there are once in a lifetime finds or sightings, but that doesn’t really have the universal appeal of the four-leafed clover or rabbit’s foot. 

An American Raven, aptly named Poe (photo by Gay Schroer)

On the other hand there are many birds that have long been considered bad omens.  Ravens and crows are often portrayed as portents of doom…largely due to one Mr. Edgar Allen Poe.  Owls are thought to predict, or even cause, death in some cultures and the Barn Owl’s frightening scream may have even birthed the myth of the Banshee.

There is one bird however that people are excited to see every year--the Stork!  Not the White Stork, which is often depicted delivering babies, but the Abdim’s or White-bellied Stork, which is thought to bring something that every living creature needs--water.  In Africa Abdim’s Storks are believed to be the heralds of the rainy season. This is because their migration coincides with the rainy season.  World Bird Sanctuary is home to one Abdim’s Stork, the mighty, ferocious, often squeaky Otis!

Meet Otis, an Abdim's Stork (photo by Leah Tyndall)

Of course Otis does not bring the rains with him wherever he goes…although every time he moves to a new city for WBS’s educational bird programs at zoos, there seems to be an occasion of freak weather.  He is not terribly big, only a few feet tall, but what he does not have in size he more than makes up for with noise and force.  To look at a White-bellied Stork you might think they look fairly harmless, but that beak of theirs can be used much like a sword to stab at the black hearts of their enemies and defend their kingdoms (only kidding…in the wild their beaks stab at small fish, small rodents and big insects).

Ever since I’ve known Otis there has been something noble and medieval about him.  On occasion we call him Sir Oh Tis, because he will defend his territory from we humans.  When I was an intern he was the bane of my existence because as soon as I entered his enclosure he would begin trying to fend me off with stabbing motions and lots of wheezing and flapping.  It took me a while to get comfortable around him and to learn how to navigate safely through his “kingdom,” lest I be struck by Abdim pox (the teeny, tiny bruises that formed from his beak). 

Otis assuming a regal stance at one of our zoo shows (photo by Teri Graves)

Eventually we worked out a truce and Otis and I are now good friends.; due largely, I am sure, to all the mealworms that I give him (his absolutely favorite treat).  In fact, in an amazing turnabout, he has started courting me--even offering me a robin fledgling that he found during one of my programs.  Unfortunately he offered me this gift in front of hundreds of people, a very National Geographic moment.  Those children learned that not only do Abdim’s Storks love insects and small mammals, but they will hunt down small birds, too.  And wow, are they unbelievably fast because of those long legs!

Up close you can see the beautiful coloring on an Abdim's Stork's face (photo by Gay Schroer)

There may not be too many lucky birds in the world, but it is all in how you look at it.  I find it incredibly lucky to have met and worked with Otis, since it is because of him I am able to safely and non-stressfully work with birds when they are being aggressive or defending their territory.  Otis may not bring rain (although that is still up for debate), but he does bring me a feeling of accomplishment…and the very occasional Robin!

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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