When I was born, I guess everybody just threw up their hands! The night I was born, Hobart went to visit with the neighbors, the Buckles family, across the street. According to Hobart, Mr. Gray Buckles said, “Well, It looks like the stork is visiting Oscar’s house again.” Joe Bush, one of the Buckles’ relatives who was also visiting, responded: “Hell, that ain’t no stork! That’s a duck! The stork’s done worn its legs off!” So, I came into the world with laughter echoing on Carolina Hill.
—from ‘The Flavour of Home: A Southern Appalachian Family Remembers’ by Earlene Rather O’Dell
Earlene O’Dell, born in Bristol, TN, certainly wasn’t the first person in Appalachia to be exposed to the idea that the stork delivers babies. This myth can be found widely throughout US culture. In O’Dell’s case, it’s entirely possible that she could have encountered North America’s only native stork, the wood stork, as a child. The wood stork has a post-breeding summer range that extends from its Gulf Coast wetlands nest areas north to Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
But the physical presence of wood storks hardly explains why ‘stork stories’ are so prevalent in areas of the US where wood storks never venture. The folk tales and beliefs that Appalachia’s German immigrants brought to their new home are a better place to look. The stork’s association with babies seems to have originated in northern Germany centuries ago.
In that country, white storks are known as “Adebar” which translates as “luck-bringer.” And apparently seed bringer, as well; even today pregnant German women are said to have been ‘bitten by the stork.’
Storks nesting on one’s roof means good luck generally, and especially in the form of family happiness. The birds were actively encouraged to nest there. German nursery stories are full of references to the stork delivering babies down a chimney. By contrast, in rural Denmark, it means bad luck if a stork builds a nest on your roof; someone in the house will die before the end of the year.
One popular German stork tale revolves around the folk legend that the souls of unborn children live in watery areas such as marshes, wells, springs and ponds. Since storks visit such habitats frequently, they were believed to fetch babies’ souls and deliver them to their parents.
White storks are highly migratory, leaving Europe for Africa in the fall. They return to central and northern Europe in late March or early April, and hence are regarded as a herald of spring.
They arrive just about nine months after Midsummer’s Day, June 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. This was a major festival in pagan Europe, a time for weddings and merrymaking well lubricated by fermented beverages.
(After the arrival of Christianity the feast continued to be celebrated as Saint John’s Day; the modern association of June with weddings may also be related to this festival.) The return of storks just as the progeny resulting from summer revels put in their appearance would not have gone unnoted.
Furthermore, storks are monogamous, tend to return to and raise their annual offspring in the same nests, and seem to attach themselves to the same houses or villages year after year.
No surprise, then, that they’ve come to symbolize traditional human ideals of home, family, fertility, faithfulness and constancy.
Sources: The Flavour of Home: A Southern Appalachian Family Remembers, by Earlene Rather O’Dell, The Overmountain Press, 2000
Beacham’s Guide to the Endangered Species of North America, by Walton Beacham et al., Thomson Gale, 2000