Mia – April 9, 2018
I’ve got quite a collection of storks, thanks to my mother. The first, in celebration of my birth, was a china figurine of a stork carrying a baby girl. Over the years, more storks followed, tucked into my Christmas stocking or posed atop my birthday cake. Stuffed storks, wooden storks, glass and porcelain and bronze storks, a Beanie Baby stork named “Stilts” and, finally, a beautiful mobile of flying storks as I awaited the birth of my first baby, Jake.
That’s because storks hold a special place in the affections of Danes (and their American descendants). Not only are they associated with delivering babies into the arms of loving parents – thanks, in part, to the popularity of The Storks, a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (whose 143rd birthday was March 31) – but they are also a harbinger of spring and a powerful symbol of happiness and good luck. I hope they get to delivering spring soon, because there is snow on the ground today in Chicago!
The much-loved European white stork, with its black-edged wings and red beak and legs, was the unofficial bird of Denmark for generations. When the Society for the Beautification of Copenhagen decided to erect a fountain in celebration of the Crown Prince Couple’s silver anniversary in 1894, the design it chose featured three storks poised for flight (see photo above). I love that a newly minted class of midwives have danced around Stork Fountain every year since 1950.
For average Danes, the return of the storks signaled the end of the long, cold Danish winter, although the birds have been turning up sooner in recent years. My kids love to hear how city dwellers would put wagon wheels and stick nests on the chimneys and rooftops of homes, churches and other buildings in an attempt to entice the lucky birds to take up residence when they returned each spring from Africa and India.
Farfar, our elderly friend at The Danish Home, told Jake, Astrid and Alex about watching storks glide high on their seven-foot wingspan during a childhood visit to Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town. Ribe claimed the title “Town of Storks” in the 1930s due to the large number of storks that descended upon it each year. Back then, 34 pairs of storks summered in Ribe, and in bumper years as many as 150 storks filled the town’s hovedengen – a meadow near the Ribe River – in preparation for their migration south at the end of the summer.
The hovedengen and other areas like it made Denmark a hospitable home for storks. The carnivorous birds feast on the frogs, mice, insects and worms that proliferate in marshes and water-meadows. But as those natural areas have been lost to development or cultivation, the number of storks summering in Denmark has declined precipitously.
In the 1800s, as many as 10,000 storks would return each spring to Denmark, inspiring not just fairy tales, but folk customs and ditties like “he brings the summer, he brings the sunshine,” a song about Mr. Stork that once opened the school day for Danish children.
By the summer of 1970, only 70 pairs of storks had taken up residence, and in recent years only a single pair of storks bred in Denmark. Those numbers have seen occasional small spikes, depending upon weather conditions and the availability of food.
It saddens me to think that Denmark’s storks now number less than my little collection, but I’m glad Farfar’s real-life stork stories have given my kids an inkling of what it was like to welcome those majestic birds back into Danish life each year. Jake, Astrid and Alex also are allowed to play with the unbreakable specimens in my stork collection whenever they wish, and we look for other ways to keep the stork tradition alive, whether through fairy tales, artwork or, maybe someday, a trip to Solvang, California, a Danish-style village where wooden storks “roost” on the rooftops of many of the downtown buildings.
For now, Astrid would love to teach residents of The Danish Home her favorite stork craft and Alex keeps hoping they’ll schedule “Storks” for one of their Saturday movies. As for me, I will always look forward to the stork, whenever and to whomever it comes.