White storks are large long-legged wading birds. Their overall plumage is white, contrasting with black flight feathers and patches on their wings. The black coloration of their plumage is a result of pigment melanin and carotenoids, found in their usual diet. The birds have a black band, surrounding their eyes and blunt, nail-shaped claws. Males and females are similar in appearance, though females are somewhat smaller than males.
A carnivore, the white stork eats a wide range of animal prey, including insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and small birds. It takes most of its food from the ground, among low vegetation, and from shallow water. It is a monogamous breeder, but does not pair for life.
Read Pritish Kumar Halder’s full article, in which he discusses the White stork bird.
White storks are found across Europe, Asia Minor, the northern part of Africa, and the Middle East. By the winter months, they migrate into tropical regions of Africa, some parts of the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. White storks prefer to feed in grassy meadows, agricultural fields, pastures, steppes, savannas, and shallow wetlands avoiding areas overgrown with tall grass and shrubs. Breeding grounds include open grasslands, particularly grassy areas which are wet or periodically flooded, and less in areas with taller vegetation cover such as forest and shrubland.
The white stork has been rated as least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It benefited from human activities during the Middle Ages as woodland was cleared, but changes in farming methods and industrialisation saw it decline and disappear from parts of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Conservation and reintroduction programs across Europe have resulted in the white stork resuming breeding in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Habits and Lifestyle
White storks are gregarious and non-territorial birds. They typically gather into loosely structured groups. During the breeding season, they nest in small colonies, constructing the nests far from each other. Non-breeding birds form groups of 40-50 individuals. During their annual migration and in their winter range, the birds gather into large flocks of hundreds or thousands of storks. White storks prefer to forage in meadows that are within roughly 5 km (3 mi) of their nest and sites where the vegetation is shorter so that their prey is more accessible.
They hunt mainly during the day, swallowing small prey whole, but killing and breaking apart larger prey before swallowing. In order to communicate with each other, White storks use various calls. Their main sound is noisy bill-clattering, which has been likened to distant machine gun fire. The only vocal sound adult birds generate is a weak barely audible hiss; however, young birds can generate a harsh hiss, various cheeping sounds, and a cat-like mew they use to beg for food. Like the adults, young also clatter their beaks.
Diet and Nutrition
Bing carnivores, White storks consume various animal species, found in shallow water and on the ground.
They eat fish, frogs, snakes, rodents, lizards, crustaceans, toads, tadpoles, spiders, scorpions as well as small mammals. They will also eat chicks and eggs of bird species, nesting on the ground.
These birds have a monogamous system, mating once in a lifetime. The mating season takes place in spring, typically from March to April. White storks return to the breeding grounds a few days prior to females, enlarging the nests, left from the previous season.
Courtship rituals include soft cooing calls as well as loud warnings to scare away intruders. After mating, the female lays 2-5 eggs with intervals of 2 days. Both parents take part in the incubation process, which lasts 33-34 days.
When the chicks hatch out, both the male and the female feed the young by rotation. The chicks fledge, reaching the age of 58-64 days. Then, around 7-20 days after fledging, they become independent. White storks start breeding at the age of 3-5 years.
This wader suffers from the alteration of its wetland habitat. During the winter, the birds are affected by desertification, drought, and the use of pesticides, which greatly reduce available prey items, causing food shortages. Nesting on buildings, the birds suffer from the reduction of suitable nest-sites due to new architectural solutions. In some areas of their range, White storks occasionally collide with electric wires. In addition, the birds are hunted for sport and food, usually during their migration into their wintering grounds.
According to the IUCN Red List, the overall population of the White stork is increasing and estimated at 700,000-704,000 individuals. Meanwhile, the population in Europe is estimated between 224,000 and 247,000 pairs. On the IUCN Red List, the species is classified as Least Concern (LC).
Preying upon various animals, White storks control the number of these species’ populations. These birds are also largely associated with humans. Thus, in agricultural lands, they benefit farmers by killing pests, while in the Palearctic ecozone of their range, storks inhabit areas, chosen by humans as agricultural lands.
Fun Facts for Kids
- The White stork has had a notable impact on human culture. According to a myth, the white stork brings babies. The bird is also a symbol of fertility and luck.
- In Hebrew, the species is called “chasidah”, which means “merciful” or “kind”.
- The White stork appears in two fables of the ancient Greek story-teller Aesop – ‘The Fox and the Stork’ and ‘The Farmer and the Stork’.
- Normally, White storks are not afraid of humans. In Europe, these birds usually construct their nests on top of buildings.
In Germany, a stork nest of a building was considered to bring good luck, protecting from fires. According to another belief, these birds possess human souls. For these reasons, White storks were protected throughout human settlements.
- White storks have an interesting ‘up-down’ display used for a number of interactions with other members of the species. Here a stork quickly throws its head backward so that its crown rests on its back before slowly bringing its head and neck forwards again, and this is repeated several times. The display is used as a greeting between birds, after mating, and also as a threat display. Breeding pairs use this display, as well as crouching forward with the tails cocked and wings extended.
- The White stork features more than 120 postage stamps of around 60 stamp-issuing organizations.