Simanaitis Says

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THERE ARE SEVERAL views on the etymology of the word “stork,” but Katherine Rundell’s suggestion is particularly appealing in “Consider the Stork?,” London Review of Books, April 1, 2021. 

“Storks appear even at the Crucifixion,” Rundell writes. “They’re largely mute, but in Scandinavian lore a stork is said to have wheeled and circled above the cross, crying out in one great effort, ‘styrka!, styrka!’ (‘strengthen ye!, strengthen ye!’ in Swedish). Hence, apparently, their name.” 

Here are other tidbits gleaned from Rundell’s article, together with my Internet sleuthing.

Other Etymology. Wikipedia says, “The Modern English word can be traced back to Proto-German sturkaz. Nearly every Germanic language has a descendant of this proto-language word to indicate the (white) stork.… According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the Germanic root is probably related to the modern English “stark,” in reference to the stiff or rigid posture of the European species.” 

European white storks, Ciconia ciconia. Large groups are known as a muster or a phalanx of storks. Image by Thomas Bresson.

Storks Bring Babies. The image is a strong one: a flying stork with a cloth bundle suspended from its beak. Live Science suggests that medieval wedding ceremonies flourished during the summer solstice. And the stork’s migration return occurred the following spring, nine months later.” 

Image from Live Science, June 13, 2018.

I’ve also heard the theory that storks nest adjacent to the warmest chimneys; that is, often above homes with newborns.    

Rundell notes, “Most of our stories about storks demonstrate their intelligence and heroism. It makes sense. They’re big, the Hercules of birds: of the nineteen species, the largest, the African marabou stork, can reach five feet tall, with a wingspan of up to ten feet.” 

Marabou Stork Lore. Siyabona Africa writes, “These are particularly lazy birds and spend much of their time standing motionless, though once they take flight they are very elegant, using thermal up-draughts to provide the needed lift.”

The African Marabou stork, Leptoptilos crumeniferus. Image by Graham Cooke from Siyabona Africa.

The Marabou’s large throat pouch, notes Siyabona Africa, “acts as a resonator allowing the bird to produce a guttural croaking. While usually silent, the Marabou Stork will also emit a sound caused by beak clacking if it feels threatened.”

Rundell offers a less-threatened assessment: “Clattering life-affirmers, hope-birds; it’s said in Eastern Europe that the excitable rattling of their bills is applause for the oncoming summer.”

Where Do Birds Go in the Winter? Rundell notes, “The question had puzzled ornithologists since the time of the ancients: Aristotle had been pretty sure that storks hibernated in trees. He also deduced that redstarts transformed into robins in the winter months and turned back again in the spring.… In 1694 the scientist Charles Morton suggested in deadly earnest that the stork, along with the swallow and crane, wintered on the moon.” 

An Errant Stork Proves Otherwise. “Then, in 1822,” Rundell writes, “a stork arrived in a German village with a thirty-inch spear in its neck. The spear, metal-tipped, rising up through the bird’s breast and out through the side of its neck, was identified as coming from central Africa. The arrow stork, Pfeilstorch, was the proof we had been waiting for: birds were flying halfway around the world every year, returning in the spring. (Far more unlikely and fairytale-like, really, than roosting inside a local tree.)”

Stork Cuisine. Rundell notes that storks “featured in medieval feasts as one of the ingredients of game pie, a delicacy which could also include heron, crane, crow, cormorant and bittern.”

She continues, “In Europe, they were part of the ritual of spectacular dining well into the 17th century: food gilded with precious metal, cocks wearing paper hats mounted on pig’s backs like jockeys, boars’ heads with fireworks shooting from their mouths, and storks roasted and then replumed to look as if they had just folded their wings from flight and come to rest on the table.”

An Aviation Link. “The great 19th-century aeronaut Otto Lilienthal,” Rundell writes, “built his experimental gliders based on the movements of storks. He studied the way their wings moved, how easily they soared on thermals, how they took off into the wind, the way their wings tapered to a point and were exquisitely cambered in cross-section.”

Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal, 1848–1896, German pioneer of aviation through his well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders.

“The impression could be given,” Rundell quotes Lilienthal, “that the only reason for the creation of the stork was to awake in us the desire to fly, to act as a teacher to us in this art.”

One wonders if Lilienthal knew any Swedish: Styrka!, styrka! Strengthen ye, strengthen ye! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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