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Avian Architecture – the Precarious Nests of the Stork

Monday, 1 August 2011

Storks make their nests high. To us they look remarkably precarious structures, not exactly a desirable residence – the ‘des res’ of your dreams. The stork, however, thrives at height most of us would avoid like the plague. Take a look at some amazing nests of the stork.

Although many Europeans encourage storks to nest on the roof of their home – it is supposed to increase the fecundity of the householders – many would gasp at the inherent danger that lies in building one’s home on top of a deadly current of electricity. In Denmark, however, the stork is not a welcome guest and so this would be considered appropriate alternative housing. The Danish believe that if a stork builds a nest on top of your house then someone who lives there will die before the year ends. These parent storks, however, will not be on the nest for great periods of time. This stork in Hungary is flying back to the nest to feed its offspring. The visit will need to be fairly quick though – stork chicks can eat anything up to sixty percent of their body weight each day. That is quite a few fish and frogs.

What would the Health and Safety freaks in the UK make of these storks nesting over a motorway in Portugal? They would, no doubt, send them a disapproving message and ask them to move on within the next few days. The storks themselves seem to be on sentry duty, watching out perhaps for the next lorry carrying cans of worms to spill off the motorway – and open them. Birds of a feather most certainly flock together. Pity the stork in Aesop’s fable. Caught in a net with a flock of cranes by a farmer, the stork begged for its life. After all, he was no crane. The farmer did not heed the stork’s pleas and that was the end of that.

The higher the building, the greater the views the storks have of their surroundings and the more likely they are to spot the next meal for their voracious chicks. However, this rather picturesque and old building in Germany has been the recipient of the remains of the many meals that the storks have enjoyed atop the clock. This may not make them popular with the owners, but for this pair, where their guano goes will be of no concern. Many think that storks pair up for life and are monogamous throughout. The latter is correct, but the stork is a serial monogamist. Each marriage lasts for a single season and next year the bird is unlikely to have the same mate. Regardless of this, however, the storks remain loyal to each other alone throughout this period.

It is sometimes difficult to work out how the storks would begin to make their nests, considering the positions they choose. Here, their choice is right on top of an old car in Neuruppin, Germany. The mind boggles as to how they actually started this structure – it would fox most humans (let alone why or how the car got there!). Furthermore, what feat of avian architecture manages to keep this nest on top of the car? It looks as it a light gust of wind might blow it away.

Perhaps the choice of a church is appropriate. For the early Christians the stork became the symbol of the white marriage – that is one that is never consummated for religious reasons. As such they were highly respected and although this symbolism has not survived to this day it did last until the sixteen hundreds.

These storks have some cheek. However, it must be said that this electricity tower must have looked to them like some kind of ready made stork social housing project. It gives the nests some appearance of order, but the carefully done distance and spacing is simply a man-made illusion. Storks will happily live side by side with both their own and other species.

The most important element in their choice of site is not the immediacy or the species of their neighbors but rather the availability in the locality of a large and steady supply of food. Storks will eat anything that moves that is of the right size and so as well as fish and amphibians it will also eat insects and reptiles. Rodents and other small mammals are not immune to attack either, so if you have just bought that cute little kitten for your six year old, don’t let it out to play with the storks too soon.

If it’s high and has a good vantage point then your local historical monument will be a target for this bird. Here in Izmir, Turkey, a centuries old landmark has been taken over by some new (perhaps undesirable) tenants. Once the stork has decided where it wants to live it becomes something of a home body. Although the stork is migratory the same nest may be used for quite a number of years so if they are unwanted guests then this can pose something of a problem for the neighboring Homo sapiens. The nests can get rather large, too. At their largest they are often over six feet (or two meters) in diameter and, to ensure the chicks don’t tumble over the edge they are deep, too. The depth can be up to ten feet (or three meters). That’s about the same as the deep end of your local swimming pool.

It may be just a remnant of your history, like the tower in the previous picture. You might just get the hump if a stork decides to nest on one of your truly ancient monuments, and this happened recently to the Kasbah of Tamdaght in Morocco. Given the longevity of the nests this may well become a local fixture. Storks need a high vantage point from which to launch in to flight. They prefer to soar and glide which helps to conserve their energy and enables them to cover huge distances in search of a home or food. The Marabou Stork has a wingspan that is over three meters in length. As such it rivals the Andean Condor as the bird with the widest wingspan of all land inhabiting species.

Roman ruins? That will do nicely!

Modern lighting system? Whyever not?

As well as being no respecter of human history, the stork will also disregard politics. This commemoration of communist era soldiery in Poland has the possible unwanted finishing touch of a stork nest at its pinnacle. Storks appear in the warmer regions of the world, mostly, but also extend as far north as colder, wetter Poland. The neighbors of these storks do not need to worry about being kept away by the calling of the birds, however. The stork has no syrinx and so is mute. The syrinx is the vocal organ for birds and as the stork does not possess one then it is mute. This might help convince you that you would not mind a pair of storks in your vicinity. Well, the stork may not twitter but it clatters instead. For the adult stork, the clattering of bills is a means of communication and bonding – and they do it a lot.

As the stork is sociable once you have a single pair, if you have room it may not be long before they attract their friends to the neighborhood. The stork has long been a tactic used by parents anxious not to inform their children too soon of the mechanics of producing offspring. “The stork brought you”, is something that many parents have used in a sweaty palmed attempt to offset the moment when the messy, sticky truth must be revealed. However, if you lived in this house, your child may well begin to think that they will soon be in receipt of a horde of siblings, ready to overrun the house and divert parental attention away from them. Keep the knives locked away and the windows closed.

In Hebrew, the word for stork – Hasida – means someone who is religiously observant, devout and god fearing. With their nests, visible to the world, the stork became a symbol of good, dutiful parental care. If you think the Hebrew word is familiar then you are right – the word is also at the root of the name of the Hassidic movement of Judaism. Some ancient texts refer to stork parents as the most caring of the animal kingdom. It was noted that if the nest was on fire the parents would not leave their offspring behind, choosing instead to perish in the flames alongside their chicks. While this is dubious it is this sort of legend that makes the stork such a powerful symbol in many cultures.

Of course, the stork is not a bird that makes a bee line purely for houses or ancient monuments. It is quite happy, to be frank, with a pole – as long as it lends the nest the required height and vantage point. Comparatively, they may seem like the poor white trash of the stork world, but the stork is not one that is interested in aesthetics. It is a case, really of predators, what predators? Its size means that it is rarely interfered with by other birds and so as long as the nest meets the prerequisite of location, location, location then the bird is happy to make its home there. The Bible, in Leviticus, expressly forbids the eating of the bird – and if you are protected by God then what do you need to fear?

Of course as a human resident of a certain location you may not be too keen on storks making their home near – or on top – of you. So, if you see a stork gazing quizzically at your domicile – be afraid. Be very afraid.

Intellects not so vast but still cool and unsympathetic, may be regarding your roof with envious eyes.

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