Dear Straight Dope:
How did the stork become associated with the birth of babies?
James Tinsley, Poplar Bluff, Missouri
The European white stork (Ciconia ciconia) is one of the most recognizable of all birds. Tall and stately, pure white except for its black flight feathers and bright red bill and legs, it has played an important symbolic role in many cultures, including those of ancient Egypt, Greece, China, and Israel. The stork has been revered in Europe at least since the Middle Ages, and its association with babies seems to seems to have originated in northern Germany centuries ago. While we can’t be certain about the origins of this belief, several aspects of the stork’s natural history suggest how it might have come about.
White storks are highly migratory, leaving Europe for Africa in the fall. (They generally avoid crossing the Mediterranean, moving south in huge flocks over the strait of Gibraltar and through the Middle East and Sinai.) They return to central and northen Europe in late March or early April, and hence, like the cuckoo and some other migratory species, are regarded as a herald of spring. They arrive just about nine months after Midsummer’s Day, June 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. This was a major festival in pagan Europe, a time for weddings as well as merrymaking well lubricated by fermented beverages. (After the arrival of Christianity the feast continued to be celebrated as Saint John’s Day; the modern association of June with weddings may also be related to this festival.) The return of storks just as the progeny resulting from summer revels put in their appearance would not have gone unnoted.
Although paired storks do not migrate or winter together, individuals have a strong tendency to return to the nest site they used previously, so the same pairs tend to re-form every spring. Because of this storks gained a reputation for marital fidelity, even though they don’t actually mate for life. The adult birds continue to feed and care for the young for some time after they can fly. This prolonged association seems to have led to the belief that it was actually the young birds that were taking care of their parents. This legend is thought to explain why a law of ancient Greece about taking care of one’s parents is called the Pelargonia, from pelargos, a stork.
With these multiple associations with fertility, fidelity, and filial piety it’s little wonder that storks became a symbol of domesticity and good luck. Because of this, people have long encouraged them to nest near their homes. Although they originally nested in trees, storks are very tolerant of human activity, and today in Europe their most common nest site is on rooftops. This together with the association with babies may have led to the popular image of a stork delivering a little bundle of joy by dropping it down the chimney.
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