The stork is an important bird in Latvian folklore, supposedly bringing health and wealth to homes with its presence. The large, noble bird is considered sacred by many other nationalities as well, and storks and babies have been linked together for centuries (as I wrote about in my post “The baby brought the stork!”). The link is possibly due to their migration patterns coinciding with a countdown of nine months after midsummer and the search for the elusive papardes zieds…
In late March and April the migrating white storks (Ciconia ciconia) return to Latvia, with male storks arriving first to retake their previous nests or build a new nest. The female birds join their mates several days later. A long-distance migrant, they winter in Africa from tropical Sub-Saharan Africa to as far south as South Africa, or on the Indian subcontinent. When migrating between Europe and Africa, the birds detour around the Mediterranean Sea because the air thermals on which they depend on for gliding on their long distance flight do not form over water. This explains the large concentrations of birds that can be seen near the Straits of Gibraltar and Bosporus around this time.
Many times people put up poles with a wheel on top to bring storks to their property, as this provides a solid foundation for a nest. Electrical poles are also utilized, although storks nest on chimneys, in trees or wherever else they find a good base for their large stick nest, which may be used for several years. My favorite site on our recent trip was the chimney of the ruins of an old home.
Storks are monogamous breeders, but do not mate for life. The female lays one clutch of eggs annually, consisting of one to six eggs which will then hatch about 33–34 days later. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the young, which will leave the nest two months after hatching but continue to be fed by the parents for a few more weeks. Starting September the birds once again fly south on migration.
Before leaving the storks will flock together and feed in groups. One source described the farewell dance the female carries out in the nest the day before leaving for warmer climates; the stork boogie includes lifting the legs, jumping and levitating.
Storks are almost silent birds. The exception is at the moment when the adult birds return to their nest, at which point they usually clatter their beak to announce their arrival. One of their Latvian nicknames is derived from this noise; a klabata is a sort of wooden percussion instrument, a timber drum that is hollow to allow for maximum resonance.
A bird of prey, the carnivores forage for insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and small birds, finding most of their prey close to the ground or in shallow water. It is a common sight to see a crowd of storks following a tractor mowing hay, as frogs and lizards are left with little cover.
Stork populations can be considered an indicator of the overall health of the environment, and in recent years the white stork has seen an increase across the continent, with approximately 10,500 pairs of white storks nesting in Latvia. This can be compared to 7,000 pairs in 1934, when changes in farming methods and industrialization saw their decline and even disappearance from parts of Europe. Conservation and successful reintroduction programs across Europe have resulted in the white stork resuming breeding in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden. In direct contrast black stork (Ciconia nigra) numbers have declined by about 40% within the country in the last fifteen years, possibly linked partly to the decrease in old-growth forest and disturbance of nesting areas; black storks prefer wooded areas and breed in large marshy wetlands with interspersed coniferous or hardwood forests. However recent research from the University of Latvia has shown that the decrease may be largely connected to Soviet-era DDT deposits, just another long-lasting legacy of fifty years of occupation.