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Stork chick

The five stork chicks at Lincoln Park Zoo have rapidly grown since this photo was taken on May 10 shortly after they hatched.

Stork Chicks Arrive in Time for Mother’s and Father’s Days

Storks and babies have long been linked in popular mythology. That association, distilled in the whimsical image of storks delivering little bundles of joy to expectant human parents, likely originated in central Europe during the Middle Ages. (More on that in a minute.)

The real story on storks—at least as it’s recently unfolded at Lincoln Park Zoo—doesn’t involve infants deposited down chimneys. Babies, however, have been very much in the picture. The five European white stork chicks rapidly outgrowing their huge stick nest at the Regenstein Birds of Prey Exhibit are the third clutch produced by parents Jethro and Cheyenne in as many years. The pair’s previous progeny include three chicks in 2010 and one in 2011. The current quintet hatched May 5, 7 and 8, just in time for Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

With Father’s Day around the corner on June 17, it seems an ideal moment to salute Jethro, his boisterous brood and a species (Ciconia ciconia) that’s enjoyed such a close relationship with people for so long.

Jethro, now 17, arrived at the zoo in 2004 from the Detroit Zoo. His mate, Cheyenne, 10, came here in 2007 from the David Traylor Zoo in Emporia, Kansas. Both parents have taken turns tending the nest and feeding their offspring a regurgitated diet of rodents and insects. The young storks need plenty of grub to fuel their meteoric metabolism. Adult storks can stand 40 inches tall with a wing span of more than five feet.

“The chicks can gain 15 percent of their body weight a day,” says Colleen Lynch, Hope B. McCormick Curator of Birds. “They stay in the nest about 10 weeks and can fly at three months old. They’re already getting their primary feathers [for flight], replacing the down.”

While Jethro and Cheyenne clearly get along well, Lynch says the commonly accepted belief that stork pairs breed for life is a bit of a fable. “Since we’ve had DNA techniques and can monitor paternity, it’s clear that even though certain birds might mate for life, there are side relationships going on. Dad isn’t always dad as much as we want him to be.”

The perception of storks as symbols of monogamy and familial dedication is deeply rooted in central and eastern Europe culture. Residents of those regions have long encouraged the migratory birds to nest on rooftops and chimneys in the spring when they return from wintering in Africa and the Middle East. Storks have a strong tendency to return to the same nest site, so the same male and female often pair up again even though they may have gone their separate ways over the winter. Stork parents also typically feed and care for their young even after they can fly, meaning families stick together for a while. Those admirable attributes no doubt played a part in the species being named the national bird of Poland.

That sort of reverence hasn’t always been the case elsewhere on the continent, where industrialization and changes in agricultural methods led to the species’ decline in some European nations. “In western Europe, they were endangered and are now the subject of reintroduction,” says Lynch. Lincoln Park Zoo participates in the European Stork Species Survival Plan (SSP), a shared management effort by zoos throughout the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

There’s another, more fascinating, possible explanation for the whole storks-and-baby thing, though. The late March–early April return of migrating stork pairs was about nine months after pagan Europe’s Midsummer’s Day festivities on June 21 (the summer solstice). Wine, weddings, good times. You get the picture. The reappearance of mating storks and their chicks on rooftops just as human mothers were giving birth below the rafters must have been seen as a sign not only of spring’s return, but of good fortune for the family living in that home.

No doubt the animal care staff at the Regenstein Birds of Prey Exhibit feel the same way about Jethro’s and Cheyenne’s flourishing family.

by Craig Keller • Published June 11, 2012

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