It seems like every other baby announcement has a stylized drawing of a stork carrying a baby in a bundle of fabric, especially in Europe and North America. Few people question this commonly-accepted image, but it is rather curious that storks are linked with human babies, and that this connection has endured so long. The connection between storks and infants dates back to the days of the Ancient Greeks, and it is a fascinating illustration of the way in which myths and legends evolve.
The Greeks noted that storks tended to return to the same nests year after year, and that the birds also devoted a great deal of time to raising their young. Over time, the belief that storks were exemplary parents began to arise, making the first link between storks and babies. After all, if storks were so good at raising their own young, surely they would be skilled at handling human infants!
Although Greek culture may have faded, the associations between storks and parenting continued to be strong in many parts of Europe. In Northern Europe, where storks appear in the spring after wintering in warmer climates, storks were thought of as messengers of spring and fertility. The birds also happened to show up right around the same that major fertility festivals were held, and people came to associate the coming of storks with parties and the conception of babies.
The European White Stork also happens to be famous for nesting on rooftops, which contributed the next piece of the puzzle. People came to believe that having a stork nest on the roof was good luck, and legends about storks dropping babies down the chimney came to abound. Northern Europeans believed that the more storks in town, the more babies there would be, and this legend continues to endure in some regions.
The image of a kindly stork carrying an infant to expecting parents became very popular in the Victorian era, when many people developed a prudish attitude to childbirth and the facts of life. Rather than giving children the gory details, parents would simply inform them that a stork had brought their new brother or sister, and in fact some Victorian wits used this as a comic device, with baby-laden storks pursuing young single women down the street in fanciful postcards.
Today, most people accept that storks are not actually responsible for the appearance of babies, or for fertility rates. However, the association between storks and babies continues to endure, as does the evasive response “the stork brought you” to curious children.