‘Where do babies come from?’ is an innocent question by children, sometimes embarrassing to answer even by the most open-minded parents, and some, if they feel they are not ready to give the ‘birds and bees’ talk, just say that babies are delivered by storks.
Images of storks carrying babies are everywhere, and we rarely question why - some ancient myths and legends say storks nesting on the roof of a household were believed to bring good luck and the possibility of new birth to the family below.
But myths they remain, and I am sure you have seen these gigantic birds either soaring on overhead on thermal updrafts (without baby bundles!) or standing on their nests, and I kind of feel rather proud that they have made Portugal their home - the current strongholds of the western population are in Portugal, Spain, Ukraine and Poland, and is even considered the national bird of Ukraine, seen as a symbol of family, loyalty and patriotism. In Portugal their numbers have increased dramatically following legal protection granted to them in the '80s.
Do they stay or do they go?
Although originally migratory, many now no longer make the arduous journey south, and over-winter in Portugal, thanks to climate change. They nest and breed on the Iberian Peninsula, then in the winter, some migrate to Africa, but more and more are choosing to hang out by landfills year-round in search of a scavenged ‘free lunch’, and do not migrate,
They are covered in white feathers, except for the black primary feathers on the wings; and have long, sharp bills and slender legs, both red. These large, graceful birds return to the same nest every year, and partner for life - however, studies have shown exceptions to this. Sexing them is difficult as both male and female are identical; but the male is usually slightly larger. At 125cm tall, the White Stork is enormous, with a wingspan of around 215cm. Storks are carnivores and their natural diet consists of insects, fish, amphibians, even small mammals or birds.
Their official name is Ciconia Ciconia – or Cegonha branca as they are known locally, and are some of the most distinctive and easily recognisable birds in Portugal. Happily, they were evaluated by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as being in the category of ‘Least Concern’, but are continually threatened by loss of habitat, collisions with power lines, use of persistent pesticides, and largely illegal hunting on wintering grounds.
This I didn’t know - Portugal apparently has the distinction of harbouring the only known White Storks that nest at sea. This behaviour is a relatively recent adaptation, but it is an expanding one, and from its beginnings on the west coast in the lower Alentejo it has now spread onto the southern coast of the Algarve.
The nests are huge - a great heap of carefully arranged sticks, built on any high structure, from chimneys, dead palm trees to electricity poles, with lower parts of their nest commonly providing homes for smaller birds. They prefer to nest inland although in the Algarve you will find nests on cliffs, which happens nowhere else in the world. Their nests are protected by law in Portugal and approval is required to remove them.
Storks are mainly voiceless, having no voice organ, but may grunt and hiss, but they communicate with a lot of bill clattering, sounding similar to a child’s toy machine gun, and is resonated using a pouch in the throat. As a greeting or display of threat, an out-stretched back and fore neck and head dance is a spectacle to watch.
A pair raises a single brood a year, the female laying up to four eggs, (each a whopping 6.1-7.3 cm in length), though as many as seven have been recorded, and both parents share incubating the eggs. The young are constantly guarded by one parent, and after about two months, the nestlings fledge but are still provided with food by the parents for another two to three weeks. At around two and a half months, the young storks are independent.
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