Our eyes on the storks

Image of Harry Eyres

No European spring, however cold and late – at least since the time of Aesop and before – has failed to bring the storks back from their African wintering grounds. In the UK, unfortunately, storks have not bred successfully since 1416, when a pair nested on St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Great excitement broke out in the British birding community in 2004 when a pair started to build a nest on top of a pole carrying power cables (temporarily switched off) in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. The storks’ nest-building attempt sadly failed.

But in parts of eastern Europe, northern Africa and the western half of the Iberian peninsula, storks – white storks, that is, rather than the much rarer black storks – are still quite plentiful. This year in Poland there was consternation when the storks arrived in the middle of a brutal cold snap, and there were reports on Polish TV of kind-hearted people trying to save the creatures. But storks are pretty tough and have endured long winters before; an old Polish proverb warns that you are not safe from frost until the middle of May.

Something that finally convinced me that we might have a spring this year was the sight of storks in two places where they seem especially established: the wine village of Rust, on the shores of Lake Neusiedl in eastern Austria and the villages of Castilla la Vieja on the high table-land of central Spain. Spain and Portugal are favourable to storks in part because they have an endless supply of nesting sites in the form of church towers and belfries. The greatest concentration of storks and storks’ nests I have ever seen was on the cathedral of Cáceres in Extremadura in south-western Spain – one to every finial, it seemed.

In Rust, the relationship between storks and people is even more intimate. In this idyllic spot, best known to me at least for its honey-sweet Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen grapes (known locally as Ausbruch), people erect special metal nest platforms around the chimneys on their roofs. Fifty years ago the local stork population was down to three pairs. At that time a stork association, the Ruster Storchenverein, was founded and now at least 16 pairs nest in the village. The benefits are not just to the birds, with many tourists coming to the village in spring and summer expressly to see the storks.

What all this shows to me is that the relationship between storks and humans is a peculiarly intimate one. Over the millennia storks have established a way of living together with human beings (the Spanish word would be convivencia). Storks seem to choose church towers and roofs as nesting sites in preference to more “natural” options such as treetops.

And if storks are not afraid of humans and manage to “get on” with them, that has much to do with the fact – in Europe at least – that humans have rarely attacked or persecuted them. That is not the case in Africa, where they have sometimes been hunted; the discovery of “arrow-storks” – birds with African arrows embedded in their bodies – helped convince early 19th-century investigators of the birds’ annual migration to Africa.

The immunity of storks has deep roots. In ancient Greece, storks were believed to look after their aged parents, and the Greek law of antipelargia (from pelargos, the Greek word for stork) made caring for elderly parents a requirement for citizens. In some places and times the killing of storks was punishable by death. Storks were also revered in Egypt, where the hieroglyph for “soul” is a stork – and in Islam, which held that storks were thought to go on pilgrimage to Mecca.

And, of course, I have not yet mentioned the long-established folk belief, enshrined in Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Storks”, connecting the arrival of babies with the long-legged red-beaked bird. Who knows whether this originated as a convenient way of deflecting persistent inquiries, or was linked to atavistic beliefs that the birds had something uncannily human, even more than human, about them?

In their different ways, both the techno-rational and deep green modes of thinking tend to set up an implacable opposition between the man-made and the natural. Techno-rationalists believe, implicitly or explicitly, in the extermination of animal species whenever they might compromise human “development”; deep greens often argue for a drastic reduction in the human population. But there is a third way, towards which the human-stork convivencia is a pointer.

A study of bird population over time shows that the flourishing of many bird species has gone hand-in-hand with human flourishing. Storks benefited from human clearing of forests and cultivation of fields, and then made use of buildings. Many small grain-eating birds have also done well on the margins of the fields and hedges made by men and women. Religious or quasi-magical ways of thinking will no longer protect storks; but a proper kind of cultural, aesthetic and historical ecology might remind us of how many blessings birds can bring – even if they do not deliver babies.


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