Wood Stork Identification

It is relatively easy to identify wood storks, but they can be confused with white-plumaged herons and egrets with which the wood stork frequently associates. In this article, you will learn how to identify a wood stork standing and in the air. 

  • Wood storks are usually the largest wading bird in their range.
  • The male and female look alike.
  • Young birds show some differences.
  • Wood storks are gregarious birds.
  • They forage in shallow bodies of water.
  • They are mostly year-round residents, and some migrate.

Wood stork identification

When identifying wood storks, it’s important to look at their size, shape, and color. For accurate identification, consider how the stork behaves, the region in which it is observed, and its habitat type.

The time of the year is also important, particularly in areas where wood stork is only a summer visitor.

What does a wood stork look like standing?

The wood storks are long-legged wading birds with distinctive and somewhat unattractive bare heads and necks. Except for some differences in head feathering between adults and juveniles (see below), both sexes are similar.

Wood stork size and shape

Wood storks appear large, slender, and long-legged, with a rather distinctive bare head and massive beak.  

The tail is very short and inconspicuous. Birds appear tailless when perched.

Wood stork male and female

The wood stork is a monomorphic species; that is to say, both the female and the male have the same plumage. 

Male wood storks are heavier and have longer beaks and legs than females.

Male and female measurements

Beak Length
(Inches)
Weight
(Pounds)
Wingspan
(Feet)
Tarsus
(Inches)
9.1 (Male)
7.9 (Female)
6.2 (male)
5.1 (female)
4.9 to 5.4 (Male and female)   8 (Male)
7.2 (Female)

The wood stork plumage

The wood stork has an all-white plumage except for the flight or wing feathers and tail, which are black.

The short black tail is difficult to see because it is partly covered by the long upper and undertail white coverts.

Juvenile wood storks have similar white plumage with a faint tan tinge to them. In the second year, young birds acquire the pure white plumage, which is kept throughout the bird’s life.

The plumage of young and adult wood storks

The juvenile plumage of young wood storks, which is the one they leave the nest in, is white with a tinge of faint tan or buffy. Unlike adult birds, their heads and necks are feathered.

The head of a juvenile wood stork is es dusky, grading to faint buffy-white toward the lower neck. The dusky tone of a juvenile’s head can vary among individuals.

Juvenile through adult plumage

  • 1st year: Birds keep their feathered heads and necks for a year before they begin to lose them.
  • 2nd year: After one year, young birds begin to lose their feathers on the head and neck gradually. During the second year, the head looks somewhat featherless, but most of the neck is still feathered.
  • 3rd year: During the third year, the head and neck are featherless, but the wrinkles and scales are not as pronounced as in adults.
  • 4rth year: The head and neck are featherless. Wrinkles and scales reach the adult stage. In subsequent years the wrinkles and scales of the head get more pronounced and gray in color.

Adult wood stork

  • In older wood storks, the head and neck appear more wrinkled and scaled.
  • Male wood storks have a longer beak than females.

Juvenile wood stork

  • Juvenile wood storks continue to grow their beaks after they leave the nest.
  • Four years after leaving the nest, the young birds acquire the featherless head and neck, as well as their dark bill.

What does an adult wood stork look like in flight?

Adult wood storks in flight look all white with distinctive black wings. The black tail seen from below is partially covered by the undertail coverts and is not readily seen. The extended neck and long beak in front, and long legs far beyond the tail give the wood stork a unique appearance in the air.

Bare parts

Bill color

Nestlings leave the nest with a pale-orange beak that is shorter and straighter than those of the adults. 

As young wood storks grow older, their beak color turns dark. The beak also grows in length and acquires a more curved shape.

In approximately one year, young wood storks acquire the bill length of the adult.

Leg color

The legs of juvenile and adult birds are gray with yellowish to reddish feet. 

Behavior

Wood storks are almost always in flocks of various sizes. They forage, loaf, and move about in flocks.

Studies of foraging wood storks found that birds usually forage from 9 AM through 4 PM, taking breaks where birds loaf and preen themselves.

Wood storks typically forage in mixed-wading species flocks with egrets, herons, spoonbills, and ibices.

Individual wood storks can also be seen foraging in canals, residential ponds, and other places. Young birds tend to forage in unusual places more than adult ones.

Birds usually take to the air 3 to 4 hours after sunrise, when thermals begin to form. They soar effortlessly to gain altitude and glide in flocks that do not maintain any particular formation. 

Wood storks use a unique foraging technique to catch fish and other small aquatic animals. They submerge their semi-open bill creating a trap that snaps quickly upon feeling prey swimming between their open mandibles.

See more details of the wood stork foraging strategies.

Wood storks often sit on a squat position

Adult and young wood storks can often be seen sitting on their elbows. This position may give the appearance of the birds being injured, but this is just a different way to rest.

Habitat

The wood stork forages in open and semi-open habitats with plenty of wetlands. 

They are rather generalists in their choices and forage for food in just about any type of shallow wetland that has plenty of fish and other animals.

Fresh and brackish water wetlands 0.5 to 1.6 feet deep are ideal foraging habitats for the wood stork. Foraging birds have been known to use tidal wetlands during low tide and fly to freshwater wetlands for the rest of the day.

Single wood storks can often forage in odd places such as canals, urban ponds, and even ephemeral rainwater accumulations. These birds are often inexperienced adults.

Wood stork nesting habitat

The ideal wood stork nesting habitat consists of tall trees >20 mt with branch structures that allow for the placement of nests.

When present, cypress trees (Taxodium spp) are among the most used trees for nesting when present. However, wood storks can nest on just about any type of tree.

For protection against land predators, wood storks nest in trees with flooded bases or on river or lake islands surrounded by water.

Wood stork range

The wood stork is a year-round resident in most of Florida, coastal Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. 

During the warm months of the summer, wood storks perform a short-distance migration to Georgia, South Carolina, and Coastal North Carolina. These birds return to Florida and Southern Alabama during the winter.

Little is known about the movements of wood storks in Central and South America.

These birds return to Florida during the cold months of the winter.

Big white bird with black wings

Observers in the southern US frequently ask about a big white bird with black wings. There are only two very large, all-white birds with black wings, the wood stork and the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).

While standing, the wood stork and the white pelican are very distinctive. The wood stork is tall and slender with very long legs. It also has a long, dark, and conical beak.

The pelican has very short yellow-orange legs and a massive typical pelican beak.

When these two birds are in the air, they can be confusing. Both glide, soar and share a similar white plumage with black wings.

However, the white pelican has a short tail, whereas the wood stork’s legs extend far beyond its tail.

Another difference is that white pelicans typically fly in a line or V formations, even when they are soaring and gliding on thermals. Wood storks never form flight formations and look like an unorganized flock of large birds.

The white ibis (Eudocimus albus) is also an all-white bird with black wingtips. However, the ibis is much smaller, has red legs, face, and beak, and does not soar and glide high in the thermals.

Wood stork vocalizations

Adult wood storks are generally silent. They make grunt and hissing noises during some types of interactions. They also make clattering noises with their beaks during courtship displays in the breeding season. 

Nestlings are rather vocal, making loud begging calls and other noises while in the nest. Fledglings lose the ability to make noises as they grow older. After the one-year mark, they are as mute as the adults. 

Voices of wood storks

Calls are given by young wood storks in a nest. Recording by: Paul Marvin (Xeno-canto).

Bill snapping given by adults. Recording by: Paul Marvin (Xeno-canto).

Alarm calls are given by an adult. Recording by: Wigh (Xeno-canto).