For ages, people were convinced that birds hibernated in the winter. Then, an extremely resilient stork proved otherwise.
People have been speculating where many birds disappeared in the winter. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, surmised that migrating birds such as swallows, aping small reptiles and mammals, simply hibernated in the winter, either in nooks and crannies or underwater. Others suggested that they metamorphised into other types of birds, or even mice, that were better able to cope with the adverse weather. Surprsingly, such theories were often propagated by zoologists. In 1703, for example, a professor from Harvard wrote in a pamphlet that migrating birds flew to the moon. So, Aristotle’s theory was not that bizarre, after all.
The ultimate proof didn’t come until 1822, when a white stork (Ciconia Ciconia) was found outside the village of Klütz on the Baltic coast of what is now Germany. And that stork was something special. It had a 30-inch spear running through its body, entering on the left-hand side of its body and exiting half-way up its neck on the right-hand side, impaling it in a grotesque fashion. Yet, the animal was suprisingly alive.
Upon inspection, the spear was found to be made of African wood, prompting the inescapable conclusion that, notwithstanding its injuries, the stork had managed to fly the 2,000 or so miles from Central Africa, from where it had migrated. The doubly unfortunate bird was killed and stuffed and mounted. Since the, it has been on display, complete with its spear, in the University of Rostock’s Zoological Collection.
Interestingly, a further twenty-four such birds were found over time, bearing incontrovertible proof that birds migrate long distances to wintering grounds, instead of hibernating or morphing into something else.
The Germans gave the name Pfeilstorch (German for “arrow stork”) to storks injured by an arrow while wintering in Africa, before returning to Europe with the arrow stuck in their bodies. Paradoxically, the suffering of these ill-fated birds meant a huge jump for ornithologists, and science in general.