Arrow stork

In 1822 a white stork landed in Klütz, then a town of the German Confederation, and finally unlocked the secret of where the birds go in winter.

Pliny the Elder, in the early proto-encyclopedia Naturalis Historia, had this to say about storks:

Up to the present time it has not been ascertained from what place the storks come, or whither they go when they leave us. There can be no doubt but that, like the cranes, they come from a very great distance, the cranes being our winter, the storks our summer, guests.

Naturalis Historia

Other naturalists suggested that the storks merely hibernated (something that’s true of only one bird, by the way… but that’s a post for another time). But the truth is that no-one in Europe knew where the storks went in winter. One day around August or September each year they just flew off and were not seen again until the next year.

Seventeen hundred and forty five years after Pliny the Elder wrote those words, a white stork landed in Klütz. This town, near the coast of the Baltic Sea in the German Confederation, is close to the northern limit of the species’ summer breeding grounds. But this was no ordinary bird. It had an arrow in its neck – not enough to kill the bird, but enough to stay stuck on the migration flight back to Europe.

That arrow, really a short 76cm spear, was made of a wood found in central Africa. The conclusion was obvious: white storks spent their winters thousands of kilometres away. A hunter had shot the bird, lost their weapon, and accidentally proved the white stork migration route for the first time.

You can view this specimen, charmingly described as a Pfeilstorch (“arrow stork”), at the Zoological Collection Rostock in the University of Rostock. Since its arrival two dozen more such birds have been found, confirming this chance scientific discovery as no fluke.

[Thanks to Gareth E.]

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