Now that we have officially moved out of Summer and into Autumn or Fall, we have started to notice that the days are getting just a little bit shorter and the average temperatures are slowly dropping. Even though the lush green bush hasn’t shown any sign of changing yet it did get me thinking about the migratory birds we see here; as their food sources dry up, at what stage are they going to leave us and begin their flight northwards. It reminded me of a story of how the discovery of a White Stork with an arrow through it cleared up a lot of confusion surrounding the migratory habits of birds.

Up until the 19th century puzzled European bird-watchers postulated each year as to where different species of birds disappeared to every Autumn. Aristotle theorized that White Storks went into hibernation perhaps at the bottom of the sea while others suggested that Swallows would nap underwater in rivers and marshes. A research paper published in 1703 even argued that the disappearing birds flew to the moon for the winter months!

European bird watchers before the 19th century thought that Barn (European) Swallows spent their winters under water where they would take a long ‘nap’. In reality, they would migrate as far south as South Africa to make use of the favourable southern hemisphere summer.

White Stork by James Hobson

A White Stork in flight over Londolozi. Aristotle theorized that these storks hibernated under the sea as he sought an explanation for their disappearance during the European winter. Photograph by James Hobson

However, on the 21st May 1822 a startling discovery turned these theories upside down when a White Stork, shot on an estate in Mecklenburg, Germany, was discovered with an 80cm long African spear sticking straight through its neck. This poor Stork, having been speared, presumably by a local hunter somewhere in Central Africa, judging by the type of spear, had survived and flown all the way to Germany along its usual migratory path only to end up being shot there in the name of curiosity. At least the bird watchers and scientists of the time had a much clearer understanding of bird migration, paving the way for the information that we now know today.

Today, the “Arrow-stork” or “Pfeilstorch” can still be seen on display in the Zoological Collection of the Univerity of Rostock. In addition, since that discovery in 1822, there have been some 25 separate cases of Pfeilstorchs recorded.

The first “Arrow-Stork” that was discovered in 1822 in Germany on display in the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock.

Today scientists and researchers track bird movements across the globe with a lot more ease and a lot less stress on the bird. They make use of tiny GPS trackers which transmit a bird’s position every couple of hours, allowing them to track the exact migratory path as the bird heads towards its summer destination. Bird ringing is also a popular way to track migrations and movements and involves a small band being placed around a birds leg with information on. When birders in other parts of the world see that band on a bird they can input that information on websites which allows collaboration between birders across the globe.

All of this is incredibly important research that not only allows us insight into bird migration, but in addition, can alert researchers to changes in climate trends and other environmental impacts in different areas which have caused birds to alter their migration routes.

Filed under Birds Wildlife

About the Author

James Souchon

Field Guide

James started his guiding career at the world-renowned Phinda Game Reserve, spending four years learning about and showing guests the wonder of the incredibly rich biodiversity that the Maputaland area of South Africa has to offer. Having always wanted to guide in the ...

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on Science, Spears and Storks

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Lets put a human on a stand human science spear ok!?

Irene Henkes

When I visited the Greater Kruger Park – Sabi Sands – in some December month, I was shocked to see ‘our’ Dutch storks being there, eating all these lovely little froggies in the park. I never realized they would go that far………… By now I am used to it 🙂 (20 years later).
At this moment I eagerly await the pair that always nests here nearby, just to be sure spring gets here at some point… 🙂

James Tyrrell

Hi Irene,
Amazingly there are nests in Europe in some old buildings (churches, cathedrals etc.) that have been in use by various stork pairs for over 500 years!!

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