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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Stork cares for young and old

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

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DOWNTOWN, as it were, in a once-thriving factory location that still has a fairly decent soccer team, bill-clapping white storks were making their presence known to an otherwise empty stadium.

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They had perched on top of a newly-erected corner floodlights rig perhaps in the hope that they might see something moving on the pitch far below. But for birds whose larder vista is usually marshland habitats of frogs, snakes, fish and small ground birds this seemed a forlorn cast of the net. Perhaps, however, there might be some grasshoppers in the penalty area?

The clapping could have been a dismissive gesture from these otherwise mute creatures, yet it seemed ironically appropriate that this was the sound of those old-style soccer fan rattles to be seen and heard at football grounds generations past. The birds soon took off to return to their winding tidal estuary and then to perch on one of the great red-brick chimneys and massive stick nests several feet high that rest on top.

The chimneys are all that remain of fish-canning factories that had made the town's reputation and now an ordinance ensures their continued presence because they are the homes of these great silent birds of myth and folklore and symbols of parental devotion.

White storks (ciconia ciconia) breed in small colonies throughout the Iberian peninsula and also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland. Most migrate to Africa for the winter via a short hop from Gibraltar or the Bosphorus but some remain.

They are used to man's presence, being considered to have a peaceful effect on areas where they make their homes. Man, in return, helps by non-disturbance and, in some cases, providing nesting bases such as old cart wheels on rooftops and chimneys.

These birds are the stuff of many legends, the best known being that of delivering babies wrapped in sheets or baskets to anxious waiting parents, the infants having been found in caves or among marshland rushes!

There are fable tales from Aesop but the baby legend was fostered in a Hans Christian Anderson story, The Stork and aided and abetted by German folklore.

Much of this can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who equated the bird with "Ba" or soul. In Hebrew it is called "chasidah" or kindly and the Greeks and Romans encouraged it to nest on their homes as an insurance against fire and also to bring harmony to families – and, very important, care for aged parents.

What a bird! Its black flight feathers are supposed to be where the devil tried to grasp it but failed. There are of course black storks (c.nigra), fairly rare, but I was lucky to have once seen one in mountain gorge country near Carceres in Extremadura in Spain. It is entirely black except for its underbelly, nests in trees in wooded countryside near water.

Black or white, storks have been around for a long time and may enjoy watching soccer or waiting for the final whistle to see what the boots have churned up!

A Polish poet, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, was nostalgic for his home place and thoughtful of storks: "For the land where it's a great travesty/To harm a stork's nest in a pear tree/For storks serve us all/I am homesick, Lord."

Sunday Independent

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