If a poll were taken throughout continental Europe to determine the most popular bird, the white stork would win hands down. This large bird, with its snowy plumage, black wing feathers and red bill and long red legs has a special place in people’s hearts. The stork is regarded as the bringer of babies from heaven and an omen of good fortune.
Worldwide, there are 17 species of stork, found mostly in Europe, Asia and Africa. In India, the common species are the painted open-billed and the adjutant storks. Most stork species stand about a metre tall. The marabou stork of Africa and its relative, the adjutant are the tallest, up to 1.5m in height. The marabou also has the largest wingspan of any land bird, except the Andean condor. The wings measure up to 3.2 in width.
Storks build huge 2m-wide ‘platform’ nests of sticks high up in trees or on the roofs of houses. In Europe, they favour disused chimney stacks and church towers.
The European species migrate to Africa in winter and return in spring to breed. Both stork parents care devotedly for the young. While one guards the nest, the other forages for food. The changing of the guard is a spectacular ritual. When the bird on guard spots its male arriving, it rises and flings its head backwards until the crown touches to back. Then it rattles its bill with a great clatter. It throws its head forward in a stiff, formal bow and rattles its bill again. The returning stork goes through the same routine, and the two perform a dance duet, cocking their tails and pirouetting with half-open wings! The elaborate ceremony is symbolic of the strong bond between pairing stocks. The same pair frequently returns to the same nesting site year after year.