Ephippiorhynchus – Saddle storks

Tall storks, widespread but uncommon

Comprising two extant species: the Black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) and the Saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis). These large waders are distinctive not only for their imposing stature but also for their vividly colored bills, which in the case of the Saddle-billed Stork, feature a striking saddle-shaped shield, hence the name.

Taxonomic history of these birds reveals an evolutionary journey where classification has been as fluid as the wetlands they inhabit. Initially, taxonomists recognized only the Saddle-billed Stork in this genus, but as studies delved deeper into their behavior and genetic makeup—particularly DNA hybridization techniques—it became clear that the Black-necked Stork shared more than just superficial similarities. This led to their combined categorization under the same genus, which is now widely accepted.

Moreover, the Black-necked Stork, itself a subject of taxonomic debate, has two subspecies that were once considered separate species. Taxonomists, armed with evidence from meticulous observations and genetic analyses, reclassified these birds, offering a more nuanced understanding of their diversity and distribution.

The fossil records unearth a chapter of the storks’ lineage that stretches back millions of years. Remnants akin to the Saddle-billed Stork have been unearthed from the sands of time in Oligocene deposits in Egypt and Miocene strata in France. The Miocene specimen, in particular, is speculated to have been a formidable presence, towering over other birds as the tallest non-ratite—a term for flightless birds like ostriches and emus.

These storks are more than relics of the past; they are masters of their domain, nesting and breeding in the rich, biodiverse theatres of wetlands. Their nests are large and often placed strategically near food sources. The storks exhibit a remarkable ‘Flap-dash display’, a behavioral gem in the avian world. This display is characterized by a flurry of wing flapping combined with dashing movements, which serves as a communication signal, possibly for courtship or territory defense.