arly in August 2020, when I was sitting in my garden in Kidlington watching the evening gulls silhouetted against the sky, I sensed that something unusual was approaching.
Long necks — for an instant I thought cormorants — but broad wings, surely not? No! It can't be! Passing gracefully overhead were three storks, entirely unexpected, indeed their sighting unprecedented in the UK, at least by me.
White storks bred this year in Great Britain for the first time in over 600 years — since 1416 when James I was king — when storks were commonplace in Edinburgh.
Storks reared not far from Kidlington, at Cotswold Wildlife Park, hatched their own chicks in Sussex this year. My prompt email to the Park brought their confirmation that — yes — there had been reports of storks seen over our region and — no — these were not the same storks bred at Cotswold's Park. At last, I knew I wasn't hallucinating!
My fascination with storks stems back to my days at primary school, where we read "The Wheel on the School" about a Dutch village where the children placed a cartwheel on the school roof to encourage storks to settle there and nest. The Dutch love storks, but changes in local agriculture and land usage brought their storks to the brink of extinction in the 1960s, and only a thousand or so pairs now breed there.
Their present heartlands in Europe lie further to the east: in Poland and the Baltic States, where, in 1994, I saw many of their huge nests. I also saw nests on my travels in the south of Spain.
Storks mysteriously would vanish in the autumn to return at the end of winter, "bringing the spring". Occasionally, they brought evidence of their travels. Sadly, some birds have been discovered with arrows embedded in their bodies. These so-called "Pfielstorch" ("arrow storks") gave rise to the idea that they must have migrated to Africa for the winter. We now know that their breeding range is from North Africa to Russia, and they can migrate past the Sahara as far as South Africa.
Despite such attacks on them, these large striking birds have generally displayed a lack of fear of humans. This behaviour has meant that people and storks have often been seen in close proximity. Storks frequently forage in open grassland where they are much easier to observe.
In Poland, people build artificial nests for them, to keep them from nesting on electricity pylons and other man-made structures. They are encouraged near fields of crops where they help production by eating mice which otherwise damage the harvest. Across Europe, storks are said to bring "luck, peace and harmony" to those whose buildings they nest on — as well as bringing sticks and guano. And, as everyone knows, that's not the only thing storks are expected to deliver.
I wonder, did three babies arrive that same evening in Kidlington?
But why do we have that legend that storks bring babies?
The reasons are ancient and unclear. Slavic folklore had storks bringing unborn souls from paradise to earth, while large birds were often associated with maternal roles in pagan mythology, such as in Hera's peacock, for example.
Storks and babies appear in Anatolian folklore, and their modern worldwide association probably owes a lot to the great storytellers and writers of European folk tales: Hans Christian Andersen in whose story "The Storks" they do indeed bring babies, albeit with a gruesome twist for a child who has taunted the birds; and Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, who between them made their Germanic folk tales a phenomenon worldwide.
Maybe our Kidlington storks weren't bringing babies? Well, not to me, anyway.
But those exquisite three storks I saw that evening brought amazement and high excitement for me when I spotted them from my back garden. Where did they come from? And where were they flying to? I don't know. But I'd dearly love to believe that before too long these beautiful birds and their descendants will become a common sight in Britain once more.
Let's hope so.
Adrian Gray is a resident of Kidlington village, Oxfordshire.