Birds and people are closely intertwined. Humans relate to birds as companions and collaborators, and as a source of food, ornaments, magic, and medicine. Some birds guide the hunter, others bring supernatural messages, or herald the seasons; some indicate by their presence or song where and when to plant crops, or predict floods or rains by their behavior or by a change in tune. Ethno-ornithology is the study of the relationship between people and birds, including cultural beliefs and customs and practical use. Local bird knowledge is now coming to be increasingly acknowledged and valued as an asset for conserving biodiversity.
The White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) is one species whose migration embraces almost the entire Great Rift flyway. White Storks breed in Europe (north to Estonia), northwest Africa, and southwest Asia (east to southern Kazakhstan) and migrate to southern Africa and also the Indian subcontinent. Eastern storks cross the Straits of Bosporus to Turkey, then pass over Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and follow the Nile into East and Southern Africa. Migration is highly synchronized and flocks may contain as many as 11,000 individuals.
White Storks breed in loose colonies, nesting in trees, on cliffs, even sometimes on the ground, although in Europe, since the Middle Ages, they have made use of chimneys, rooftops and steeples. The nests are huge and bulky, constructed of sticks and branches and lined with various materials from grasses and twigs to rags and old paper. Some nests have been used for centuries and are massive, with layer added upon layer, year by year.
White storks used to be common throughout Europe, but apart from Spain (14,000 pairs) and Portugal (ca. 10,000 pairs in 2008), breeding white stork populations saw a drastic decline from 1970 – 1990. (Snow & Perrins 1998).
Threats to White Storks include drainage or development of wetlands; the degrading of wintering habitat by overgrazing; pesticide use; and pest control reducing the locust swarms, which are food for storks. Hunting is another threat, especially over Syria and Lebanon, and also in Africa, where the birds’ tendency to congregate makes them susceptible targets. The White Stork is protected under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA).
African farmers consider the white storks as allies, welcoming them as “grasshopper birds,” since the large wintering flocks that follow locust migrations through the Sahara’s southern fringes help with the pest control.
In southwestern Ethiopia, the Arbore people perform a jumping dance to the rhythmic clacking of sticks in imitation of the stork’s bill clicking.
The Ancient Egyptians depicted the human soul as a stork having a human head. With its capacity for long distance migration, the stork represented the soul making its way to life after death. The Hebrew word for stork was equivalent to “kind mother”; the storks, tending their young in their highly visible nests, were considered symbols of devoted parental care.
In Europe, the White Stork is considered a harbinger of the spring, of happiness and prosperity, and a symbol of childbirth – in popular culture, it is the stork that delivers the infant, wrapped in a sling from its beak. The small pink or reddish patches often found at the nape of a newborn child’s neck (the clusters of developing veins that soon fade), are often called “stork bites”. The Dutch name for stork – ooievaar – comes from old German odobero – bringing luck. In Bulgaria, on March 1st, called “Baba Marta,” (Grandma March), there is a tradition of wearing red and white threads tied into bracelets, or “martenitsa.” This old custom is linked to spring themes of fertility, abundance, and health. The bracelets are worn until the first returning stork is seen, and then the bracelets are tied to a tree, (often a fruit tree) to ensure bounty in the coming year.