The magnificent sight of a White Stork in full flight is one of the most amazing sights for us here in the Algarve.
Although we know a little about these beautiful birds, who are believed to bring good luck and fertility to the home over which it built its nest, we thought we would research them a little more – and found out some very interesting facts about them.
Storks from all over Europe (that used to migrate to the sub-Sahara in the winter) have flocked to Portugal in the last 20 years to the point where the population has grown from about 1,000 in 1995 to 14,000 in 2014. In the past the storks would fly south to Africa in the summer, and return to Europe at the end of the winter, however in the last 20 years white storks have begun to stay here all year round.
The milder climate would have played its part, however sadly research has shown that it is the increase in landfills and rubbish that has led to them not needing to travel thousands of miles each year – they now have a never-ending supply of local ‘food’, leading many articles to suggest that they have become addicted to junk food.
Their natural diet would consist of a mixture of frogs, beetles, worms and other small mammals, including lizards, snakes, fish, and large insects. Obviously we now need to add McDonalds to that list – how sad.
White Storks are faithful to both their partner and nesting place each year and the building of the nest is carried out by the male and female together. The nests made are usually huge in size, constructed of sticks and branches, grasses, twigs, and other materials. The nests are normally around 1m in diameter but may be up to 2 to 3m wide. The sight of a bird in flight carrying a huge amount of grass material above your head is quite something; we have often disturbed one foraging in the grass on an early morning walk beside us and gasped in amazement as it elegantly took to the skies above us.
The breeding time of the White Stork is from the beginning of April and lasts 32 to 33 days. They most often lay three to five eggs and both parents share the task of sitting on them. During the first few weeks the young chicks are constantly supervised by a parent, and it is a wonderful sight watching them protect and nurture their young as they grow rapidly. We often marvel at how the nest manages to cope with two adults and usually two or three rapidly growing young chicks as they seem to double in size each week.
After two months the nestlings begin to fly but are still fed by their parents for a further two or three weeks. The young White Storks become independent after about three months and reach sexual maturity at around three to five years. Only then do the young storks return to their nesting area to mate. The maximum number of years a stork can survive for is apparently thirty-five years.
The White Stork could never be mistaken for any other European bird. The adult reaches a standing height of 80 to 115 cm and has a wing span of 195 to 215 cm. It is easy to recognize by its white plumage, with black on its wings and shoulders, with a long red beak and red shanks. It is hard to distinguish between the male and female, and indeed often the youngsters can be almost as tall as the adult – the youngsters however have a black bill to differentiate them.
They are an elegant creature even when foraging, as they stalk along at a gentle pace, with their neck held straight. However it is in flight that it takes on a grace and beauty which quite belies its size, as it glides high in the sky taking advantage of air thermals to soar up into the sky with outspread wings.
One of our favourite places to observe the White Stork in close proximity is the beautiful town of Silves, where the storks seem to have nested on just about every available chimney, building and structure available to them around the river.
They are a gregarious bird, we have seen upwards of 200 of them all together in a large open marshland area near our home, which was a most arresting sight. It is when you look up as you wander around a town and suddenly find them precariously nesting on the top of a chimney stack that you are most amazed – we have a couple nesting on a chimney above a local fish restaurant in Portimão, and the smoke rising up through the chimney each evening must keep their bums nice and warm at night!
Our favourite thing though is the impressively loud and imposing adult White Stork’s noisy bill-clattering, which we have likened to the sound of an old-fashioned wooden football rattle. The bird makes these sounds by rapidly opening and closing its beak so that a knocking sound is made each time its beak closes. It’s an amazing and unique sound – and very loud!
The White Stork has had an impact on human culture and folklore throughout history. We thought they were just known for bringing babies into the world, but a bit of research dug up some fascinating myths and legends. In Ancient Egypt it was associated with, and was the hieroglyph for, the Ba, or “soul”. The Hebrew word for the White Stork is chasidah (חסידה), meaning “merciful” or “kind”. Greek and Roman Mythology both portray storks as models of parental devotion, and it was believed that they did not die of old age, but flew to islands and took the appearance of humans. They were also thought to care for their aged parents, feeding them and even transporting them, and children’s books depicted them as a model of filial values. A Greek law called Pelargonia, from the Ancient Greek word pelargos for stork, required citizens to take care of their aged parents. The Greeks also held that killing a stork could be punished with death.
According to northern European legend, the stork is responsible for bringing babies to new parents. The legend is very ancient, but was popularised by a 19th century Hans Christian Andersen story called The Storks. German folklore held that storks found babies in caves or marshes, and brought them to households in a basket on their backs or held in their beaks. The babies would then be given to the mother or dropped down the chimney. Households would notify when they wanted children by placing sweets for the stork on the windowsill.
*Folklore information taken from http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/White_Stork
So be careful what you leave on your windowsill overnight!