We missed the flamingoes. Apparently their migratory stop in southern Portugal took place before we arrived. No bother. I met the European white stork, Ciconia ciconia.
As we drove around Portugal, I was like a little kid in a candy shop: “There’s a stork nest. There’s another. Oh look, there are storks all over that tree over there.”
For most of my life I’ve seen the cartoon stork character carrying an infant in a sling. I was never impressed. But in real life, these birds capture my attention and affection.
European white storks are long-necked wading birds standing on stilt-like red legs with straight pointed red bills. They have white feathers from head to tail, with the exception of their jet-black wing feathers. They stand a good 3-feet tall and their wingspan is easily triple that. Unlike many birds, males and females look alike, except that males are generally larger. Legs and beaks turn red as the birds mature. European white storks have no vocal chords, so they communicate by clacking their beaks.
As impressive as the storks are, the architecture of their nests is just as fascinating. You can’t miss them. They are bulky, made of branches and twigs, measuring six feet across and up to 9 feet deep. I’ve read that the nests are lined with grass, sod, rags, and paper. They are on rooftops and seaside cliffs, chimneys and light poles, trees and towers, even centuries-old church steeples.
Storks are such friendly birds, settling in cities and countryside alike, totally unperturbed by wingless humans aiming cameras at them. Some nests have been used continuously for hundreds of years—European storks have been building nests on manmade structures since the Middle Ages. The knights of that era decorated their shields, banners and coats of arms with figures of storks. Today, the stork continues to be revered. It is against Portuguese law to disturb or demolish a stork nest.
(In the last 50 years pollution, pesticides, and wetland drainage have led to a decline in the stork population in Western Europe. Storks no longer breed in Sweden, Switzerland, western France or Belgium. In The Netherlands, breeding pairs declined from 500 in 1910 to 5 in 1985; in Denmark there were 4,000 breeding pairs in 1890; 100 years later, only a dozen.)
Stork couples use the same nest each year, always adding to it. Interestingly enough, while a pair shares a nest during breeding season, the two don’t migrate or overwinter together. These long-legged wading birds thrive on small mammals, frogs, fish, lizards, snakes, mollusks, and insects. They prefer open habitats, such as wet pastures, flooded meadows and marshes, but coastal towns also provide good hunting grounds. Portuguese farmers see storks as a way to eliminate the need for expensive pesticides. Farmers entice storks to their property by placing old wagon wheels on sawed off willows, encouraging the birds to use the wheels as bases for their nests.
During migration storks soar on thermal air currents and are reluctant to fly across large bodies of water to reach their wintering spots in tropic Africa. Therefore, the Western birds cross over the Straits of Gibraltar while the Eastern birds cross the Bosporus and go through the Middle East. In October, when the storks of Portugal’s Algarve migrate to Africa for the winter months, I’ve read that the skies above Sagres and Cabo de Sao Vicente, the extreme southwest corner of continental Europe, are filled with thousands of storks, gliding on the thermals.
Storks breed in various countries, from Tunisia and Morocco to southern Portugal, to Croatia and Slovenia, to Greece, Turkey, and Russia. They typically lay 3 to 5 eggs in March or April, and incubation is 33 to 34 days. Return migration from Africa to their breeding grounds occurs nine months after the previous summer solstice, June 21. The summer solstice was a pagan holiday of marriage and fertility, when many human babies were conceived. The increased birth rate in March coincided with the storks’ return from Africa, giving rise to the legend of storks delivering babies.
For the most part, the folktales and stories about storks I’ve read since returning home link storks and babies, or storks and good luck. Storks are included in Greek and Norse mythology as well as and Chinese and Israeli legends.
Then, there are the other stories. Hans Christian Andersen wrote the fable The Storks in 19th century Denmark, where storks take revenge on nasty children. A Polish folktale follows similar lines, saying that God gave the stork white feathers but the Devil gave it black wings, symbolizing that the bird is both good and evil. In England, the stork represents adultery. In Germany, legend has it that when a handicapped baby was born, it had been “dropped” by a stork to punish the parents for past sins.
I much prefer the Dutch proverb, where storks are admired for eating frogs. In Dutch, the stork is called “ooijevaar,” which means treasure-bringer. Storks nesting on the roof mean a baby will soon be born in the house, a treasure indeed. Laurie Lynch
Written on Slate: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” –Martin Buber