The flying storks of KampalaBy EDGAR R. BATTE in Kampala | Wednesday, August 1 2012 at 16:13
They are the unofficial national birds of Uganda, proud residents of Ugandan cities and towns, whether Kampala, Jinja, Mbale or even Mbarara.
On a number of occasions, city residents have spoken about the marabou storks, especially car owners who are often forced to paint their cars when these multi-coloured birds dye vehicles with their whitish droppings. But even so, they remain darlings to many bird watchers who flock the city.
You will catch them hovering around slaughter houses, at garbage heaps, fishing villages, yards and trees. But in many ways, they are like the city dwellers, scavenging for survival in the city.
With faces only a mother would appreciate, they saunter around garbage without apologies and when perched on the treetops or high up on the city dumpsites, they look at the rest of creation with a pejorative gaze.
Their look could be indifferent: bald heads, reddish heads, hair strands and unflinching eyes warn enemies from a distance. Their survival skills, going by their growing numbers over the years, is clear in the many hours they spend in the city, every day.
Often, city frequenters will be seen trying to frighten them. Others have criticised the city authorities for not being able to rid the city of these scavengers.
Little do they know that these unofficial residents have stayed in Kampala and many suburbs longer than many of its current inhabitants. According to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Public Relations Officer, Lillian Nsubuga, marabou storks have been in Kampala for decades, with their numbers growing over the years.
“They are also in many of the game parks and a high population particularly in Queen Elizabeth National Park,” Nsubuga added, saying that the state of the city has given them a home, given its filth accumulation - of garbage heaps as well as trees in which they build their nests.
From their nests, they lazily ease themselves. Streetwise residents of Kampala take care while walking under the trees to avoid the bird's putrid waste.
“I was on my way to the Chinese restaurant above Jephis Salon with my friends when I heard a plopping sound and this terrible white substance started running down my face,” recalls Mr Stephen Mugwanya.
Delicious exotic food was momentarily forgotten as he rushed to a city council toilet and his friend ran off to find a detergent to clean the filth. “The stench was overwhelming but I was lucky I could clean up fast nearby,” he recalled.
The ugly marabou, locally known as karoli, has long found a home in Kampala. As a child growing up in the 1980s, Godfrey Ssali says marabou storks were a common sight in Kampala, mostly around dustbins and in trees where they built their nests.
Bird enthusiast Hebert Byaruhanga, managing of director of Bird Uganda Safaris Ltd, says that marabous have been around since times immemorial. “In the sixties they were not in towns. They recently came because of the availability of food,” he says.
Research by Makerere University’s Prof Derrick Pomeroy indicates that the number of storks in the country has gradually grown from a very small number in 1968, when they were first counted, peaking in 2007- 2008 during the nesting season. “We counted 1,000 nests in Kampala, two-thirds of which were in Makerere,” said the professor.
Marabou Stork is a resident tropical Africa bird and Michael Opige Odull, Programme Manager at Nature Uganda, says that this bird is frequently common in its range area.
He adds: “Sometimes they appear in big colonies in urban centres. This may be associated with scavenging on rubbish usually found in urban settings. The marabous can eat up to 1 kilogramme of garbage a day.”
And with eating comes the habit the ugly residents are known for. “Most of the complaints are of the foul smell from the birds’ droppings. This is as a result of the diet and the digestive system of marabous resulting in white acidic excreta,” Mr Opige explains.
Nonetheless these garbage collectors enjoy some attention and even love love from the tourists who will most likely capture pictures of them, for their miserable-looking faces and unique features. The head and neck are naked, mainly red or pink in colour. The wing and tail are black. The birds have two inflatable sacs, a bright red one at the back of the neck and a pinkish pendulous balloon which is variable in size and hangs below the neck. It has a massive horn-coloured beak.
The image matches their nickname as Africa’s undertakers, which has earned them a place on the birding safaris.
But these undertakers are not sure of their tomorrow. In January this year, Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper reported 50 marabou storks found dead in Makerere. Experts blamed forces of nature for their deaths.
Nature Uganda said, “These [birds] are the things that Makerere should be proud of by realising that marabou storks in Makerere and around Kampala have provided research opportunity."
That debate has been going back and fourth.
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