Animal Moments

One cold spring morning at the zoo, I stopped to watch the birds in a large yard with a pond in the middle. The residents included two dozen Chilean flamingos and a pair of white (or European) storks (Ciconia ciconia). Canada geese came and went, plying their ancient politics of courting, fighting, and breeding, while the opportunistic gulls and mallards made brief visits to the pond or to the grassy yard to glean edibles the other birds hadn't found.

One of the storks was on a large nest built on top of a mound about 15 feet from the pond. She seemed to be sitting on eggs, but I couldn't be sure. I watched the male stork stepping sedately around on the grass, not looking for things to eat, I realized, but finding and picking up small sticks. The stork carried one stick and, when he came to a second one, picked that one up also. Two sticks seemed to be the limit. When he tried to pick up a third stick, he dropped the first two.

Eventually Mr. Stork made his dignified way back to the nest with one or two sticks in his beak. He walked right up to Mrs. Stork where she lay and stood there holding the sticks as though waiting for her to tell him where she wanted them, or perhaps studying for himself where they would best go. White storks return to the same nest year after year. Usually the male stork arrives first and starts to rebuild the nest. Later the female arrives, and she helps with the nest rebuilding but does less work than the male.

 

After a while, a keeper come through the gate into the flamingo yard with a plastic bag. She stood about ten feet from the storks, which were both on the nest at this point, and tossed several small fish, one at a time, to each of the storks. The birds caught most of the fish in their beaks and gulped them down. When a bird missed the fish, it didn't bother to retrieve it. Rather, the stork just looked expectantly toward the keeper and waited for the next toss.

After the keeper had emptied her bag (each stork got at least ten fish), she went away. At once, a gull that had been working at some distance from the storks' nest ventured closer and closer until it reached the foot of the nest mound. The gull proceeded to find and swallow at least two fish the storks had missed. Then it found a third fish, grasped it in its beak, and flew over to the pond edge, dipped the fish briskly twice in the water, and swallowed it.

The pair of storks had a surprise for me a couple of weeks later. I saw that there was a stork chick in the nest, being tended by one of the grownups. I assumed that they had in fact been sitting on an egg, and that that was why they were always so busy adding to the nest.

No, a keeper runs through it. The zoo has a second pair of storks, and that pair laid four eggs this year. Two of them hatched, the third didn't, and the fourth hatched some time later when the first two chicks were already growing. The keeper was afraid that the older birds would hurt their younger sibling. As it happened, the pair I was watching had no eggs. So the keeper took the newly hatched chick, stuffed it back into the shell, and put the pieces back together.

Then she placed the reassembled egg in the other stork nest. And when these storks saw the egg, which of course started to re-hatch right away, they performed the normal "meet and greet" behavior that parent storks exhibit when one of their eggs hatches. The adoptive parents were accepting the chick as their own!

How suitable that, for once, it was the human carrying the new baby to the storks.

June 9, 2010