The Vulturine Storks
European Storks are majestic, they’re graceful and stately and all of the positively connotated adjectives that are applied to birds to which humans have a long and pleasant history rooted deep in our western cultural heritage. In fact, there’s hardly a bird in the world that has such a venerated relationship with us. They are, after all, the feathered bearers of actual children if the old stories are to be believed, and their shadow lies long over birder and non-birder alike. Though they’re scarce across much of central Europe anymore, you can still find the the massive nests they build on the roofs of houses in the eastern part of their historic range and in Iberia, and so great is the nostalgia surrounding them that reintroduction of captive raised birds have been a popular, and mostly successful, venture in many parts of the European continent. They’re beautiful birds, and an example of the way birds and humans can coexist more or less prosperously for centuries.
I mention all of this because we in North America, especially the southern part of North America, have storks too. But ours have none of the cultural cache that European White Storks enjoy in their home range. Where White Storks are beautiful, ours are grotesque. Where they’re urbane and sophisticated, ours seem dour and rural. Where theirs would cradle the next generation carefully swaddled and bill borne, ours would seem more fit to be slumming it with vultures and crows. Of course, I’m speaking of the mysterious Wood Stork, Mycteria americana, the only representative of that famous family to regularly occur north of the Mexican border and present in large numbers along the northern coast of South Carolina, where I found myself a couple weekends back.
It would be difficult to imagine our Wood Storks hauling child, at least one that wouldn’t be screaming, rendered completely terrified by the featherless face than invokes nothing so much as a skinned skull. In fact, so pervasive is the myth of the gentle caring Stork that I suspect few non-birders would even characterize ours as a close relative. They just don’t look it. When faced with a massive flock nearly 100 birds deep, as I did at Huntington Beach State Park recently, the sense is even one of foreboding rather than charm. There’s no two ways about it, they’re ominous, and I count myself as one who really likes Wood Storks.
Wood Storks are an exceptionally old species, and its existence predates the last Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, by tens of thousands of years more. Fossils discovered in Brazil are indistinguishable from modern Wood Storks, and date from at least the late Pleistocene. This is a bird with some pedigree. That’s only based on the physical evidence, taking into account more circumstantial stuff, the species is probably even older still. Its the only member of the genus Mycteria in the New World, the rest of its cogeners, a handful of other bald and nearly bald Storks with long curved bills, hail from East Africa and South Asia. This begs the question, how did the Wood Stork end up in the Americas with relatives so far away?
Mycteria as a genus dates from the Miocene, at minimum 5 to 7 million years ago. The continents then were more or less as they are today, so the split between Wood Stork and its Asian cousins must have occurred prior to that. The Stork family has roots all the way back to the Paleogene, 40-50 million years ago, and while storks are epic aerialists, capable of covering long distances, an ocean might be too much to ask. In that case perhaps the New World Wood Stork and the other Old World Mycterias are not as closely related as their appearance would suggest, but the question is fascinating though. In any case, with its craggy features and measured movements, it’s easy to believe that this is a visage, homely though it may be, that has been around a while.
Here’s to the Wood Stork, then! It’s no looker, it may not nest on our roofs or transport our progeny, but its story is far more fascinating than any old wives’ tale.