Greater adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius) are exceedingly rare in their range from Northern India to Indochina and may breed exclusively in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. In the early part of the 20th century, large breeding populations of greater adjutants were common throughout Northern India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Southern Vietnam.
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
Greater adjutants are large birds, ranging in height from 120 to 152 cm with an impressive 250 cm wingspan. A long, thick yellow bill precedes the sparsely feathered, yellow to pink head and neck. The head is typically dappled with dark scabs of dried blood and characterized by the presence of a pendulous, inflatable gular pouch. The legs are naturally dark in color but frequently appear ashen due to regular defecation on the legs. When in flight, greater adjutants are recognizable by their white underside feathers and tendency to retract their necks like a heron. A mixture of white and gray feathers, which appear darker during the non-breeding season, adorn the rest of the body. Juvenile greater adjutants resemble adults, but have duller plumage and more feathers around the neck. The mass of these birds is unknown in the wild, but is estimated to be the heaviest of the storks.
Range length: 120 to 152 cm.
Average wingspan: 250 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; ornamentation
Greater adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius) have been observed in a variety habitats including marshes, lakes and jheels (shallow expansive lakes) as well as dry grasslands and fields. These birds are most frequently associated with slaughter houses and refuse sites near human settlements and were formerly common on the streets and rooftops of Calcutta. They typically nest in large trees and rock pinnacles near human settlements.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest
Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; temporary pools
Other Habitat Features: urban ; suburban ; riparian
Habitat and Ecology
In their native range, where they are primarily scavengers of large carrion, greater adjutants are known by the name "hargila," meaning bone swallower. They were once prevalent in Calcutta, where their tendency to consume human corpses left to rot in the streets was valued. One record indicates that a single greater adjutant effortlessly swallowed two buffalo vertebrae, measuring approximately 30 cm in length, in less than five minutes. Greater adjutants are most commonly found scavenging in mixed flocks near human garbage dumps or large carcasses. They can also be seen foraging independently near drying pools where they hunt insects, frogs, large fish, crustaceans and injured waterfowl. When foraging, greater adjutants use a method of tactile foraging where they hold their beaks open underwater and patiently wait for a prey item to swim between the open mandibles.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; fish; carrion ; insects; aquatic crustaceans
Primary Diet: carnivore (Scavenger )
Greater adjutants are important scavengers of large carrion and likely contribute to sanitation and disease control in the environment. Like many birds, greater adjutants are hosts to avian lice including Colpocephalum cooki and Ciconiphilus temporalis.
Ecosystem Impact: biodegradation
- Avian lice (Colpocephalum cooki)
- Avian lice (Ciconiphilus temporalis)
No natural predators have been reported for this species. Unhealthy or young birds are likely preyed upon by local carnivores.
Life History and Behavior
Greater adjutants lack vocal muscles so they rely on unique behaviors and tactile forms of communication to interact with each other. Males often utilize beak clattering to advertise their territory and ward off other males. Males attract mates by presenting them with fresh twigs and later holding their beaks close to the female. Breeding pairs also perform head bobbing rituals that likely reinforce their pair-bond. Like all birds, greater adjutants perceive their environments through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Although the longest lifespan of a captive greater adjutant was 43 years, the longevity of these birds in the wild remains unknown.
Status: captivity: 43 (high) years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Other storks are known to be monogamous, but not always paired for life. It is thought that greater adjutants follow this mating system. Great adjutants are colonial nesters and will build many nests in the canopy of a single tree. Males claim suitable nesting branches and advertise their territory by perching on the branch with bills upward and exhibiting bill-clattering. When females perch nearby, males will present them with twigs as part of courtship. Courtship rituals consist more of courtship postures, where males will hold their beaks close to potential mates or tuck the females heads under their chins. Pairs also perform up-down bobbing motions together.
Greater adjutants nest in large, broad-limbed trees with sparse foliage. This choice of nesting tree is thought to facilitate landing and take-off for the large adult birds. Nests are constructed out of sticks and several pairs will often occupy the same tree. While females lay 3 eggs per season, an average of 2.2 chicks per pair are fledged successfully each year. Both parents participate in incubating eggs until they hatch after 28 to 30 days. Chicks fledge at 5 months of age.
Breeding interval: Greater adjutants breed once a year.
Breeding season: Greater adjtants breed during the dry season from October to June.
Average eggs per season: 3.
Range time to hatching: 28 to 30 days.
Average fledging age: 5 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Both male and female greater adjutants participate in nest building. After the eggs are laid, both parents also incubate the clutch for 28 to 30. The altricial chicks are cared for by both parents until they fledge at 5 months old.
Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)
Many consider greater adjutants to be the most endangered stork in the world. Captive breeding programs have failed thus far, but efforts to protect natural habitats are active. Unfortunately, their tendency to nest near human settlements may prove fatal.
In the early part of the 20th century, the population size of greater adjutants is said to have numbered in the millions. They were common in Northern India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Southern Vietnam. Beginning in the mid 1980's the population began to decline heavily. Today an estimated 1,000 birds remain and likely breed only in the politically unstable Assam state of northern India. Populations are still declining and the IUCN red list lists greater adjutants as endangered.
Felling of large nesting trees, pollution of freshwater systems and a decline in the disposal of human corpses in public trash dumps are all thought to contribute to the rapid loss of this species. In Assam, recent reports of disease in this species also seems to be a contributing factor in its decline. Results of a survey of Assam residents revealed that only 30% of those polled knew greater adjutants are endangered. Greater community awareness of this unique species may help in its recovery.
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Date Listed: 09/12/2011
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Leptoptilos dubius, see its USFWS Species Profile
In Assam, it occurs in Kaziranga, Manas and Dibru-Saikhowa National Parks. Since 1991, there have been conservation awareness programmes in Assam. In Nagaon district, Assam, Green Guards (a local NGO) had a project to protect nesting trees and rehabilitate chicks fallen from nests but this has now stopped (A. Choudhury in litt. 2012). In Cambodia, the breeding colony at Prek Toal is a core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve. Greater Adjutants historically bred at other sites on the Tonle Sap, but these colonies were abandoned by 2001. Conservation actions to reduce chick and egg collection and other forms of disturbance to the breeding colony at Prek Toal have been in place since the late 1990s, with permanent teams of protectors employed since 2001. The small population in the Northern Plains is largely protected within Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. Since 2001, c.95% of waterbird egg and chick collection has been prevented at Prek Toal. It is included in waterbird conservation awareness material in Laos and Cambodia. Conservation Actions Proposed
Conduct further surveys in Cambodia, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Investigate seasonal movements and threats. Protect nesting and feeding-sites outside protected areas, and plant trees in suitable areas; the nest payment system in Cambodia may be a suitable model. Rewarding the owners of nesting trees may be a means to encourage pride in the conservation of the species (A.R. Rahmani in litt. 2012). Promote strict control of pesticide use around feeding areas. Continue and strengthen on-going conservation actions at the Prek Toal colony, Tonle Sap lake. Establish a wildlife protection office at Tonle Sap lake. Draft and enforce waterbird conservation legislation at Tonle Sap lake. Expand conservation awareness programmes and develop a structured captive breeding programme to support future reintroductions and population supplementation. Initiate a relief programme and promote alternative livelihoods to communities dependent on harvesting large waterbird colonies in Cambodia. Widely implement a policy of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing chicks that fall from nests for natural reasons, such as during thunder storms (Singha and Rahmani 2006, Singha et al. 2006), and consider placing nets under nest-trees and conducting regular checks at colonies (Singha et al. 2006).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
While greater adjutants pose no threat to humans they are often looked upon with disgust because of their general appearance, habit of defecating on their own legs, as well as diet of carrion.
Greater adjutants are valuable scavengers of discarded human waste, including unburied corpses as well as other large carrion. This service may have a role in preventing the spread of disease.
The greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) is a member of the stork family, Ciconiidae. Its genus includes the lesser adjutant of Asia and the marabou stork of Africa. Once found widely across southern Asia, mainly in India but extending east to Borneo, the greater adjutant is now restricted to a much smaller range with only two small breeding populations; one in India with the largest colony in Assam and the other in Cambodia. Populations disperse after the breeding season. This large stork has a massive wedge-shaped bill, a bare head and a distinctive neck pouch. During the day, they soar in thermals along with vultures with whom they share the habit of scavenging. They feed mainly on carrion and offal; however, they are opportunistic and will sometimes prey on vertebrates. The English name is derived from their stiff "military" gait when walking on the ground. Large numbers once lived in Asia, but have declined greatly, possibly due to improved sanitation, to the point of being endangered. The total population in 2008 was estimated at around a thousand individuals. In the 19th century, they were especially common in the city of Calcutta, where they were referred to as the "Calcutta adjutant". Known locally as hargila (derived from the Sanskrit word for "bone-swallower") and considered to be unclean birds, they were largely left undisturbed but sometimes hunted for the use of their meat in folk medicine. Valued as scavengers, they were once used in the logo of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.
The greater adjutant is a huge bird, standing tall at 145–150 cm (57–60 in). The average length is 136 cm (54 in) and average wingspan is 250 cm (99 in). While no weights have been published for wild birds, the greater adjutant is among the largest of living storks, with published measurements overlapping with those of the jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) and marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). Juvenile greater adjutant storks in captivity weighed from 8 to 11 kg (18 to 24 lb). For comparison, the heaviest known wild stork was a marabou stork scaling 8.9 kg (20 lb). The huge bill, which averages 32.2 cm (12.7 in) long, is wedge-like and is pale grey with a darker base. The wing chord averages 80.5 cm (31.7 in), the tail 31.8 cm (12.5 in) and the tarsus 32.4 cm (12.8 in) in length. With the exception of the tarsus length, the standard measurements of the greater adjutant are on average greater than that of other stork species. A white collar ruff at the base of its bare yellow to red-skinned neck gives it a vulture-like appearance. In the breeding season, the pouch and neck become bright orange and the upper thighs of the grey legs turn reddish. Adults have a dark wing that contrasts with light grey secondary coverts. The underside of the body is whitish and the sexes are indistinguishable in the field. Juveniles are a duller version of the adult. The pendant inflatable pouch connects to the air passages and is not connected to the digestive tract. The exact function is unknown, but it is not involved in food storage as was sometimes believed. This was established in 1825 by Dr John Adam, a student of Professor Robert Jameson, who dissected a specimen and found the two layered pouch filled mainly with air. The only possible confusable species in the region is the smaller lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus), which lacks a pouch, prefers wetland habitats, has a lighter grey skull cap, a straighter edge to the upper mandible and lacks the contrast between the grey secondary coverts and the dark wings.
Like others storks, it lacks vocal muscles and produces sound mainly by bill-clattering, although low grunting, mooing or roaring sounds are made especially when nesting. The bill-clattering display is made with the bill raised high and differs from that of the closely related African marabou which holds the bill pointed downwards.
Taxonomy and systematics
John Latham wrote about the bird found in Calcutta based on descriptions in Ives's Voyage to India published in 1773 and included an illustration in the first supplement to his General Synopsis of Birds. The illustration was based on a drawing in Lady Impey's collection and Latham called it the gigantic crane and included observations by an African traveller named Smeathman who described a similar bird from western Africa. Johann Friedrich Gmelin used Latham's description and described the Indian bird as Ardea dubia in 1789 while Latham later used the name Ardea argala for the Indian bird. Temminck used the name Ciconia marabou in 1824 based on the local name used in Senegal for the African bird and this was also applied to the Indian species. This led to considerable confusion between the African and Indian species. The marabou stork of Africa looks somewhat similar but their disjunct distribution ranges, differences in bill structure, plumage, and display behaviour support their treatment as separate species.
Most storks fly with their neck outstretched, but the three Leptoptilos species retract their neck in flight as herons do, possibly due to the heavy bill. When walking on the ground, it has a stiff marching gait from which the name "adjutant" is derived.
This species was once a widespread winter visitor in the riverine plains of northern India, however their breeding areas were largely unknown for a long time until a very large nesting colony was finally discovered in 1877 at Shwaygheen on the Sittaung River, Pegu, Burma and it was believed that the Indian birds bred there. This breeding colony, which also included spot-billed pelicans (Pelecanus philippensis), declined in size and entirely vanished by the 1930s. Subsequently, a nest site in Kaziranga was the only known breeding area until new sites were discovered in Assam, the Tonle Sap lake and in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. In 1989, the breeding population in Assam was estimated at about 115 birds and between 1994 and 1996 the population in the Brahmaputra valley was considered to be about 600. A small colony with about 35 nests was discovered near Bhagalpur in 2006.
During the non-breeding season, storks in the Indian region disperse widely, mainly in the Gangetic Plains and sightings from the Deccan region are rare. Records of flocks from further south near Mahabalipuram have been questioned. In the 1800s, adjutant storks were extremely common within the city of Calcutta during the summer and rainy season. These aggregations along the Ghats of Calcutta however declined and vanished altogether by the early 1900s. Improved sanitation has been suggested as a cause of their decline. Birds were recorded in Bangladesh in the 1850s, breeding somewhere in the Sundarbans, but have not been recorded subsequently.
Behaviour and ecology
The greater adjutant is usually seen singly or in small groups as it stalks about in shallow lakes or drying lake beds and garbage dumps. It is often found in the company of kites and vultures and will sometimes sit hunched still for long durations. They may also hold their wings outstretched, presumably to control their temperature. They soar on thermals using their large outstretched wings.
The greater adjutant breeds during winter in colonies that may include other large waterbirds such as the spot-billed pelican. The nest is a large platform of twigs placed at the end of a near-horizontal branch of a tall tree. Nests are rarely placed in forks and an unobstructed top canopy allows the birds to fly easily from and to the nests. In the Nagaon nesting colony in Assam, tall Alstonia scholaris and Anthocephalus cadamba were favourite nest trees. The beginning of the breeding season is marked by several birds congregating and trying to occupy a tree. While crowding at these sites, male birds mark out their nesting territories, chasing away others and frequently pointing their bill upwards while clattering them. They may also arch their body and hold their wings half open and drooped. When a female perches nearby, the male plucks fresh twigs and places it before her. The male may also grasp the tarsus of the female with the bill or hold his bill close to her in a preening gesture. A female that has paired holds the bill and head to the breast of the male and the male locks her by holding his bill over her neck. Other displays include simultaneous bill raising and lowering by a pair. The clutch, usually of three or four white eggs, is laid at intervals of one or two days and incubation begins after the first egg is laid. Both parents incubate and the eggs hatch at intervals of one or two days, each taking about 35 days from the date of laying. Adults at the nest have their legs covered with their droppings and this behaviour termed as urohidrosis is believed to aid in cooling during hot weather. Adults may also spread out their wings and shade the chicks. The chicks are fed at the nest for about five months.
The greater adjutant is omnivorous and although mainly a scavenger, it preys on frogs and large insects and will also take birds, reptiles and rodents. It has been known to attack wild ducks coming within reach and swallowing them whole. Their main diet however is carrion and like the vultures their bare head and neck is an adaptation. They are often found on garbage dumps and will feed on animal and human excreta. In 19th-century Calcutta, they fed on partly burnt human corpses disposed along the Ganges river. In Rajasthan, where it is extremely rare, it has been reported to feed on swarms of desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) but this has been questioned.
Parasites, diseases and mortality
At least two species of bird lice, Colpocephalum cooki and Ciconiphilus temporalis have been found as ectoparasites. Healthy adult birds have no natural predators, and the only recorded causes of premature mortality are due to the direct or indirect actions of humans; such as, poisoning, shooting, or electrocution when the birds accidentally fly into overhead electricity wires. Captive birds have been found to be susceptible to avian influenza (H5N1) and high mortality was noted at a facility in Cambodia, with two-thirds of infected birds dying. The longest recorded life span in captivity was 43 years.
Status and conservation
Loss of nesting and feeding habitat through the draining of wetlands, pollution and disturbance, together with hunting and egg collection in the past has caused a massive decline in the population of this species. The world population was estimated at less than 1,000 individuals in 2008. The greater adjutant is evaluated as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Conservation measures have included attempts to breed them in captivity and to reduce fatalities to young at their natural nesting sites. Nearly 15% of the chicks are killed when they fall off the nests and die of starvation, so some conservationists have used nets positioned below the nests to prevent injuries to falling young and then raising these fallen birds in enclosures for about five months before releasing them to join their wild siblings.
Aelian described the bird in 250 AD in his De Natura Animalium as the kila, a large bird from India with a crop that looks like a leather bag. In Victorian times the greater adjutant was known as the gigantic crane and later as the Asiatic marabou. It was very common in Calcutta during the rainy season and large numbers could be seen at garbage sites and also standing on the top of buildings. Its local name hargila is derived from the Sanskrit hadda-gilla, which means "bone-swallower", and John Latham used it to give the species the binomial name, Ardea argala. At that time it was a belief that it was protected by the souls of dead Brahmins. Young British soldiers were known to harass these birds for fun, even blowing up birds by feeding them meat containing bones packed with a cartridge and fuse. The birds in Calcutta were considered to be efficient scavengers and an act was passed to protect them. Anyone who killed the bird had to pay a fine of fifty rupees. The old emblem of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation included two adjutant storks facing each other. Captured birds, probably from Calcutta reached menageries in Europe during this period.
The undertail covert feathers taken from adjutant were exported to London during the height of the plume trade under the name of Commercolly (from the place Kumarkhali, now in Bangladesh) or "marabout".
An Indian myth recorded by the Moghul emperor Babur was that a magic "snake-stone" existed inside the skull of the bird, being an antidote for all snake venoms and poisons. This "stone" was supposed to be extremely rare as it could only be obtained by a hunter with great skill, for the bird had to be killed without letting its bill touch the ground in which case the "stone" would evaporate instantly. Folk-medicine practitioners believed that a piece of stork flesh chewed daily with betel could cure leprosy.
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