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Relation of water level and fish availability to wood stork reproduction in the southern Everglades, Florida

January 3, 2022

The wood stork is a species of colonial wading bird in the Everglades that is most sensitive to changes in the availability of food. Previous studies have shown that the initiation and success of wood stork nesting depends on high densities of fish concentrated in ponds and other catchment basins during the dry season. The extreme dependence of the wood stork on the cyclic hydrologic regime of the southern Florida wetlands makes it an indicator of the well-being and ecological stability of the Everglades.

The wood stork has declined in numbers over the last 25 years. One reason for the decline in wood stork population was the change in the hydrologic regimen of the Everglades which affected the feeding habitat and the food production.

The fish on which the wood stork feeds increase in density during the dry season as water levels fall. In the Everglades marsh, densities were highest in front of the drying edge of surface water at a depth of about 0.3 m. Dry-season densities were greatest when a drought occurred the previous year.

Historically wood stork nesting success was associated with high summer water levels, high rates of surface-water discharge and high rates of drying. Before the closure of the south side of Conservation Area 3 in 1962, years of successful and unsuccessful nesting were characterized by different patterns of drying. These patterns changed after 1962 and generally the predictability of successful nesting breaks down thereafter. Only two nesting years after 1962 were successful and in only one of these was the drying rate similar to years of successful nesting before 1962. Two other potentially successful years failed after 1962. This suggests that further changes in the hydrobiological relations occurred within the Everglades after 1962.

Lack of successful nesting after 1962 can be attributed in large part to late colony formation and the interruption of nesting by winter rainfall. In this period (1962-72), colonies formed earlier in years of high early drying rates than in years of low early drying rates. Delay of colony formation is ultimately the result of inability to attain a suitable nutritional state since food supply is the primary factor in the initiation of nesting. Many of the complex food associations of the wood stork remain to be explained.