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U.S. Breeding Population of Wood StorksBack from the Edge
by Chuck Underwood
Photo Credit: Tom MacKenzie, USFWS
Both beautiful and odd, the wood stork's appearance is hard to confuse with any other bird. From its long spindly legs, to its bulky body covered in white feathers trimmed in black, to its buzzard-like neck and head, the wood stork (Mycteria Americana) is one of a kind.
The wood stork is the only true stork species nesting in the U.S., and its breeding population once numbered nearly 20,000 pairs. However, by 1978 those numbers had plummeted to just 2,700 documented nesting pairs.
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the species as endangered in 1984, the status of the species has progressively improved, with an increase of nesting pairs and the expansion of its breeding range. The three-year averages during the past decade range from 7,086 to 10,147 nesting pairs—all above the benchmark established for changing the species federal status to the less critical threatened category.
"Although some habitat loss continues, current population data suggests that the wood stork is benefiting from the work of private landowners and several strong partnership efforts," said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southeast Regional Director. "The wood stork is expanding its breeding range using a wide variety of wetlands to forage, roost, and breed, including natural, restored and man-made wetlands."
At the time the species gained Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection, its southeastern U.S. range included Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama and breeding was primarily in central and south Florida.
A safety net for the nation's imperiled fish, wildlife, and plants, the ESA has helped improve the status of the wood stork. Today, the wood stork now ranges throughout portions of North Carolina and westward through the southeast to Mississippi, with significant nesting colonies now found throughout Florida, as well as, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
"The wood stork has shown a fascinating ability to respond to changes in hydrology by broadening its breeding range beyond central Florida, the Everglades, and Big Cypress ecosystems," said Dave Hankla, former field supervisor for the Service's North Florida Ecological Services Office in Jacksonville. "However, this does not reduce the importance ongoing restoration work in these areas has for wood stork recovery. Nor does it diminish the significant role South Florida's ecosystems serve for all wildlife."
Americans also depend on the habitat that sustains these species—for clean air and water, recreational opportunities and for their livelihoods. With our own well-being so closely linked to the health of endangered and threatened species, the ESA affords public and private partnerships the framework to take action now to ensure a healthy future for all. The wood storks' progress toward recovery is a great example of the positive benefits these joint efforts can have.
The successes are highlighted through partnership programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program, which has restored over 200,000 acres (80,940 hectares) of wetlands in Florida and more than 115,000 acres (46,500 ha) in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina during the past 18 years. Thousands of acres of wetlands on private lands are also being protected through conservation easements for the benefit of this species.
Additionally, large landscape-level restoration projects such as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, Kissimmee River Restoration Project, and St. Johns River Headwaters Restoration Project are significant conservation efforts that continue to promote wood stork recovery.
Continuing collective efforts toward accelerating recovery will ensure populations of this unique bird and the wetland habitats upon which it – and other species – depends are sustained.
Chuck Underwood, a Public Affairs Officer in the Service's North Florida Ecological Services Field Office in Jacksonville, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 904-731-3332.
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