The Arrow Stork

Aug 3, 2021 0 comments

Many birds fly extraordinarily great distances in search of warmer climate, food and favorable breeding grounds, a seasonal phenomenon we now know as migration. But to early scholars such a notion was inconceivable—how can a bird weighing only a couple of hundred grams survive the hardships of intercontinental travel over lofty mountains and vast oceans to distant lands with no apparent means of navigation, and then fly all the way back? Yet, scholars struggled to explain why some species of birds appeared and disappeared as the seasons changed.


Greek writer Homer believed that cranes flew south in winter to fight the pygmies of Africa, a fable that’s repeated by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. According to Pliny, these pygmies fought the cranes with arrows while mounted on goats and rams. Aristotle suggested that the tiny swallow avoided the strain of migration by hibernating in the ground instead. These myths were kept alive for centuries. In the 16th century History and Nature of the Northern Peoples by Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus, there is a passage on swallows that say that the bird congregate in vast numbers in fall, and sink down into the mud and water, packed like sardines. A woodblock print accompanying the passage shows fishermen pulling up a net loaded with hibernating swallows from a lake.

Aristotle even went so far as to suggest that some birds underwent miraculous transmutation as the seasons changed. He declared that the European Redstart, which is commonly seen during summer, transforms into the European Robin when the weather turns cold. In reality, the Redstart flies south to Africa for the winter, while the Robin, which breeds farther north, comes to Greece in winter.

One of the first conclusive evidence of migration came from Germany. In 1822, a gruesomely wounded white stork was found near the German village of Kl├╝tz, in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The stork’s neck was pierced by a 30-inch-long spear. Examination of the weapon revealed that the spear was similar to the ones used by hunters in Central Africa, providing evidence that stork had gone so far south as Africa.


The Pfeilstorch at the University of Rostock. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The bird was taxidermied with the spear intact, and today is on display at the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock in Germany. The creature also gave rise to a new term —pfeilstorch, which is “arrow stork” is German. Surprisingly, more than 25 pfeilstorch, with African spears embedded in their flesh have been found till date.

Today, with the help of tags attached to legs and satellite tracking we know that storks migrate to Sub-Saharan Africa up to 4,000 km away from home for wintering.


A pfeilstorch spotted near Gilboa Mountain in Israel. Photo: Ruthie Ram


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