Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Apple #109: The Stork, Bringer of Babies

One faithful reader wanted to know the source of the legend about storks bringing babies. As I have discovered is the case with many often-referenced tidbits in our culture, nobody is really sure where this tale came from. But here are some possibilities:

Image from the Pregnancy Help & Information Center

  • Many cultures have admired and revered storks, including ancient Greece, Egypt, China, and Israel. But, many say, the legend of the stork bringing babies seems to have originated in northern Germany, possibly in the Middle Ages. Why they say northern Germany, I'm not sure. This may itself be another tale that gets passed on without explanation.
  • Some say the the legend came about when people noticed that storks, migratory birds, arrived at their nesting places about 9 months after midsummer. Midsummer, or June 21, was a huge pagan festival day and a time of lots of weddings and in general much partaking of fermented beverages. The suggestion is, obviously, that many folks were getting it on at about this time. Nine months later, the storks showed up on their migratory route. Storks happen to like to nest in very high-up places, like the tops of chimneys or roofs. So if a stork chose your chimney top or roof to build its nest, you would say that the stork had brought your baby. This was perhaps also a way to dodge admitting what you had actually done to bring about the baby.

Storks nesting on top of a chimney.
(Photo from Stork Wallpaper)

  • Another possible origin for the myth is that people believed that the souls of unborn children lived in wet places like marshes, ponds, springs, and wells. Since storks often stalk these areas looking for food, people thought that they were also fetching the souls of newborns out of the water.
  • In Germany, the myth went that storks found newborns deep in rocky caves (also a preferred nesting place for storks), or "stork-stones," and carried the babes to their parents-to-be.
In addition to pagan legends, the Bible includes several references to storks as signs of a turning away from sin and bearers of heavenly truth. Many Christian songs and paintings depict storks as present at the Annunciation, which presumably would have been in springtime, 9 months before the birth of Christ.

I also found this poem, called The Stork Legend, which may be the origin of the legend, or the legend simply put into poem form and in a Christian context:

When Christ was born on Christmas Day
The birds and beasts knelt down to pray.
In wonder all adoring kneeled--
The ox in his stall, the fox in his field,
While badger, bear and each wild thing
Flocked round the manger where slept a King
Housed in a stable at Bethlehem.

And the long-legged stork was there with them,
Her feathers white, her crest held high,
And awe in her bright, compassionate eye.

"Alas," mourned she, "how poor His bed
Who rules the universe o'erhead!
Though cozily curled sleep all my breed,
The Lord of the World lies hard, indeed.
Unpillowed is He who should wear a crown."
Then out of her bosom she plucked the down.

The plumes from her breast she tugged and tore
That the Child should rest like a beggar no more,
But fine on a pallet fit for a prince.
And blest has the stork been, ever since --
For the gift she gave of her body's wear --
Blest on chimneys, blest in air,
And patron of babies everywhere.
--Author unknown

Storks are also the subject of other legends and associations, beyond just bringing babies:
  • While storks do not mate for life, individual storks do return to the same nest site. People assumed that the same pair of storks was returning and therefore decided that they were a symbol of fidelity as well as fertility.
  • Also, adult storks continue to care for and feed their young until well after the young are able to fly. People again mis-interpreted what they were seeing and thought that in fact the young were taking care of their elders. Thus a law in ancient Greece which requires one to take care of one's elderly parents is called Pelargonia, after the word pelargos, which means stork.
  • Storks were also a symbol of longevity. People maintained that at the spry age of 600 years, storks stop eating solid food. By age 2,000, storks hit middle age, turn black, and continue living. This of course is not true, but is perhaps a more accurate depiction of the longevity of the species.

A saddle-bill stork at the San Diego Zoo. Note the red patch.

Here are some facts about storks that are true:
  • The bare patch on the stork's breast (which the Stork Legend might say came from the bird plucking out its own feathers for the Christ child's bed) is actually a mating tool. The patch becomes bright red during breeding season and is designed to impress potential mates.
  • While many storks return to the same location to make their nest, they often have to rebuild the nest each year. For some storks, their nests survive. But the storks still add on to the nest with each return, and as a result, some nests grow to be enormous, as big as 9 feet deep and 6 feet wide.
  • Young, growing storks eat up to 60 percent of their body weight per day. So if you weighed 175 pounds, that would be like eating 105 pounds of food a day.
  • Some storks' bills are very sensitive. They need only to hold their bills in the water, very still, and when they feel a fish or bug or shellfish brush against the bill, they snap it up.
  • One type of stork eats snails. People had assumed that the stork simply crushed the snail shell in its bill, but they noticed that the snail shells were open but intact. On further investigation, they discovered that the stork holds the snail to the ground with the upper part of its bill, while the lower part of the bill slices the muscle that holds the shell closed. The shell opens, the stork eats the meat, and leaves the empty shell.
Thanks for another great question! If you have a question you would like to ask, simply post it in the Comments field of this entry.

The Straight Dope, Why are storks associated with babies?
Creagrus @ Monterey Bay, Storks
Suzetta Tucker, ChristStory Christian Bestiary, Babies & Spring
Babies & Birthdays, The Stork Legend
San Diego Zoo, Birds: Stork

1 comment:

  1. Came across interesting info on Cygnus Constellation possibly relating to Storks..Also happens to have a wave which could act as a carrier wave of consciousness/dna from other systems. Research Peter Gariev & Brian Collins from more info.


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