Friday, October 14, 2011

The Stork Bit Mother

A lot of books around here, and with a good allowance of free time, the hours frequently lead to unexpected places. From a nudge in the direction of birds I wound up Thursday in a book of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. Going from large birds to storks to myth, the dots eventually connected with the well-known author of fairy tales, and a story about storks.

“Yes,” their mother agreed…“I know the pond where all the little human babies lie until the storks come to take them to their parents. The pretty little babies lie in that pond, dreaming more sweetly than they ever dream afterwards. All parents want a little baby, and every child wants a little sister or brother. Now, we’ll go to that pond and bring a little baby sister or brother for each of the children who didn’t sing that wicked song or make fun of us. But those that did won’t get any.” —from Andersen’s 1838 tale “The Stork”

Can’t say that the notion of storks delivering babies was ever talked about in my family, and though it was a common enough idea among most in the early years of my own childhood, it’s doubtful that it ever got past the status of pure fairy tale. And though it was Hans Christian Andersen who wrote the story that did most to spread the tale of storks delivering babies, there is much about the large birds that fits very nicely into the legend, and biology as well as behavior fit very well with myth to support the old story.

The large birds build their nests in trees for the most part, but many years ago chimneys were a favorite alternative site for the stork’s nest, and in places like Germany, Poland and Scandinavia they were even encouraged, or lured to build a nest in a family’s chimney. This led to the thought that the stork can easily deliver a baby down the chimney chute, providing a convenient explanation for where babies came from. It also helped that they are migratory birds and therefore able to deliver babies from a faraway land. To explain mother’s bed rest following the baby’s arrival, children were told that before departing the house, the stork bit mother’s leg.

The stork’s great size, serial monogamy and faithfulness to one nesting site have also contributed to the bird’s place in myth and culture. People in earlier times believed the stork is faithful to one mate throughout its thirty-five year life span, but modern science has shown that to be only partially true. They do take more than one mate and they do not always return to the same nest. But they are good parents and care for their young even after the fledglings are able to fly. In biblical Hebrew, the word for stork is the equivalent of “kind mother,” and thus the bird became a symbol of parental care. Believing that the young storks took care of their elderly parents, and taking it as an example, the Romans even passed legislation called ‘Stork’s Law’ obligating children to care for their aged parents.


  1. When my oldest daughter says she "is seeing her future" in reference to her aging parents, I will tell her she was brought up under Roman law and that "Stork's Law" is still valid. Failing that, I will be selling my book collection for a steady supply of Depends that will get me through those coming cold and leaky winter nights.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America