It was wartime , and propaganda fell from the sky like dishonest rain. Nazi planes dropped leaflets over British lines in Europe telling them that their wives were in bed with American soldiers, complete with drawings of said wives undressed. The Allied forces flew hydrogen balloons over Axis troops to scatter images of fields lined with German graves. But the scope of both planes and balloons was limited. So when Himmler wanted to send propaganda to the Transvaal in a bid to win the support of the Boers, he ordered his scientists to investigate the possibility of using migrating storks as carriers. Test flights for the Storchbein-Propaganda began, until it was found that a thousand birds would be required for every ten leaflets that reached their target. The plan was abandoned. Others, on the Allied side, were more persistent. In 1940 a dead stork was found on a farm in the North Transvaal with a message on a piece of tape sewn around its leg, sent by the resistance in Nazi-occupied Holland: ‘To our South African brothers: we, the people of Bergen op Zoom, tell you that living under German occupation is just hell.’
Storks have always been our carrier birds, and we have loved them for it – though exactly why we told children that they were delivered to their parents slung from a beak isn’t wholly clear. The story may originate in Slavic mythology, where the stork carries unborn souls from Vyraj, a spring paradise, to earth. It’s also possible that mistaken identity is involved: in Greek myth, Hera transforms the Pygmean queen Gerana into a leggy long-beaked bird; Gerana then rescues her baby from Hera’s clutches, carrying it in her beak. But the bird in the original myth is a crane (γέρανος) not a stork. The version we know best comes from Hans Christian Andersen. His rendering is more heavy metal than ours: a group of young storks are taunted by a cruel child, so their stork mother tells them she knows the pond ‘in which all the little babies lie, waiting till the storks come … We will fetch a little baby brother or sister for each of the children who did not sing that naughty song.’ But for the cruel child ‘there lies in the pond a little dead baby who has dreamed itself to death. We will take it to the naughty boy, and he will cry because we have brought him a little dead brother.’ This bit of the story is left off greetings cards.
In 1822 storks solved the mystery of where birds disappeared to in winter. 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 this he was no more wrong than Olaus Magnus, archbishop of Uppsala, who in 1555 reported that swallows slept out the winter at the bottom of muddy lakes. Indigenous North American accounts told of hummingbirds hitchhiking on the backs of geese; Homer suggested that every spring cranes went to war against ‘the pygmy-men’ at the ends of the earth – revenge, he said, for Hera’s mistreatment of their queen. In 1694 the scientist Charles Morton suggested in deadly earnest that the stork, along with the swallow and crane, wintered on the moon. Then, in 1822, 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.)
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. They look wise: the white stork has a flick of black eyeliner that gives it a look of knowing intellect. In 1536 the city of Delft was half-consumed by fire; a Dutch physician, Adriaen de Jonghe, saw a female stork return from hunting to find her nest in flames. She tried to lift her babies out of the nest: failing, she covered them with her body and allowed herself to be burned along with the young she was powerless to save. In 1820, it was reported that storks extinguished the flames that ran through the town of Kelbra – though the alleged author of this claim, the ‘little known’ and possibly apocryphal Okarius de Rudolstadt, doesn’t say how that might have worked. Storks appear even at the Crucifixion. 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!’ in Swedish). Hence, apparently, their name.
Globally our admiration and love for storks has swung – haphazardly, destructively – between the sentimental and gastronomic. At least four species are endangered because of hunting and habitat loss. Until very recently, Britain was a country without its own storks. The penultimate English-born stork hatchlings were in 1416; then there was a 604-year wait until, last May, five chicks were born to one of the hundred or so birds introduced as part of a rewilding project on the Knepp Estate near Horsham in Sussex. Nobody knows why they became extinct in Britain: it’s said they prefer republics, so we could blame the royals, but it’s more likely they were hunted into nothing for food. They featured in medieval feasts as one of the ingredients of game pie, a delicacy which could also include heron, crane, crow, cormorant and bittern. 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.
That flight – effortless, barely flapping – could be credited with bringing us human aviation, since the great 19th-century aeronaut Otto Lilienthal 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. ‘The impression could be given,’ Lilienthal wrote, ‘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.’ Leaping off the Rhinow Hills in his stork-like plane in 1893, he was able to travel 820 feet: enough truly to know flight. He died three years later when his glider stalled in mid-air, an accident for which the storks are indirectly responsible.
Storks are said to bring luck to the houses on which they roost. (They’re also a fire hazard: they build nests up to six feet across and ten feet deep, returning year after year to add to them.) I once saw one in Zimbabwe kicking up insects from the grass and catching them in her long beak – a sight to blow your hair back. Standing, all legs and beak, they look like a stroke of calligraphy by a flamboyant and ambitious god. Even the ugly ones – like the marabou, which with its tufts of hair and big neck pouch hanging like a scarf or a testicle has the aspect of a disreputable undertaker – are beautiful. They produce marvels without warning: when the woolly-necked stork opens its wings in flight, it reveals a band of unfeathered skin on the underside of the forearm that shines a startling ruby red. Clattering life-affirmers, hope-birds; it’s said in Eastern Europe that the excitable rattling of their bills is applause for the oncoming summer. Their wings in the spring sky read as semaphore, beating through the air, proclaiming: ‘Strengthen ye, strengthen ye!’