The Mayor's Birds

Kampala's storks are a key to the city's waste disposal

Returning to Kampala, I am overwhelmed by how lush and tropical everything seems. The city has a welcoming fold if you don't look too closely at the small mounds of smoldering trash scattered behind shops and roadsides. In the North, areas are intentionally burned to create open patches for animal grazing, although it seemed pretty dangerous to see a crisp, yellowed landscape start to go up in flames.

In Kampala the acrid-smelling embers attract the city's guardian trash soldiers: marabou storks. Leptoptilos crumeniferus has a giant wingspan of nearly 9 feet (only one bird in the world beats it: the Andean Condor with 9.8 feet) and weighs up to 20 pounds. Native to grasslands where they are known to march in front of fires and snatch fleeing animals, these days they scan Kampala looking for burning trash. The recent synergy with humans is a good one; the marabou stork's global population numbers place it in the ICUN's "least concern" category.

On my morning exercise route, I regularly come across one particularly scraggly brute standing on top a blackened garbage pit as if he were a warden keeping watch. No wonder then that the name of its sub-species is the Greater Adjutant and Lesser Adjutant, so named because it stands proud and upright. I looked him over carefully, wondering if he would let me pass and hoping he would understand that I, like most humans he's encountered, really have no interest in claiming his treasure.

The "mayor's birds," as they are called, provide the invaluable service of disposing of leftover food scraps and even some the inedible stuff in quantities of more than a pound a day. When not feeding or gliding the skies, they perch within city trees, bending branches as they land to a rather disconcerting degree. They make little noise, as they lack sphincter muscles, but a rustle above is a warning to duck because no one wants to be the recipient of the other end of this garbage disposal.

Despite the free service they provide to a city that formally collects less than 30 percent of its trash, the birds are not universally appreciated. Why? Well, they are not, shall we say, endearing looking animals. They have bald, pink splotchy heads, grotesque growths, and floppy second chins that serve as air bags for bouyancy during flight. Then there's the habit of defecating on their legs as a cooling device (their legs would otherwise be black). I never got close enough but I would be willing to bet they have bad breath to boot.

The city of Kampala has certainly taken them for granted. In the 1990s it conducted a brief campaign to poison them. And in early 2007 the city decided to trim trees away from electrical lines during the stork's breeding season, resulting in a dozen chicks stranded on highway medians. The incident provoked a hue and cry among the city's naturalists and sparked a bit of soul searching on the part of the public. These days the birds are more protected and tolerated. Though I doubt they will ever be a full-blown tourist attraction, they do lend an ethereal quality to the city. Look up to the skies and you see dozens upon dozens circling above. I know they are just looking for garbage, but I imagine they are protecting us. Maybe from ourselves.

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