Spare a thought for the stork, whose number is dwindling, says Baljit Singh

Black, yellow and pink streaks over a snow-white body make the Painted Stork attractive
Black, yellow and pink streaks over a snow-white body make the Painted Stork attractive

Children in the western world grow up believing that babies are born in heaven and transported to chosen parents through storks. Tragically, this fairy tale of free, aerial home delivery service of babies which endured over millenniums is now headed for a re-casting as, "once upon a time storks used to....". For, most stork species the world over are on rapid decline and India is no exception.

All species of storks have one thing in common. In the entire animal kingdom, they alone lack the sound box and are therefore mute. But they talk nevertheless by clappering their two, hard mandibles together like castanets and by varying the speed and velocity of impact they communicated all their emotions and intentions to each other.

If an intruder approaches a nest, the machine-gun rattling by an outraged stork unnerves any predator. At the other end of the scale, the mandibles can produce an irresistible whisper when a male lays his bill along the female’s neck to woo her.

In India, we have nine species of storks — six of them resident-breeders and three winter-migrants. Of all residents, the Asian Openbill and the Painted Storks have had the largest and almost an all-India presence.

Admittedly, the rather ordinary looks of the Asian Openbill may not attract attention but no one can miss out on the Painted Stork. Each bird looks as though straight out of MF Husain’s atelier with a fresh coat of patterns in black, yellow and blushing pink over a snow-white body. If you chance to see a Painted Stork carrying material for nest building, the fable of the aerial baby delivery service comes alive at once.

Both species are prolific breeders yet they have entered the list of the "threatened". The worst hit are the Lesser and the Greater Adjutant Storks. They had limited distribution in the north Brahmaputra Valley in Assam and along the Nepal-Terrai belt in Bihar.

As of today, the Lesser Adjutant are less than 2000 individuals whereas the Greater Adjutant are feared to number no more than 650 to 800 birds in India.

The status of the two winter migrants is equally dismal. While the countrywide range of the White Stork has shrunk to the Kutch region only, the Oriental Stork has entered the globally threatened list.

The largest of all storks in India and a resident too is the black-necked. His is the most elegant and commanding presence; beak, head and neck are coal-black, glossed with bluish-green-purple tinge, lower back, tail and lower half of wings also black, but glossed with metallic green and the rest of the plumage is glistening snow white.

For the seductive element, the female has golden yellow eyes. Add to all this, orange-red tall and slender legs to complete a stunning visual.

It used to have a sizeable population in north Bihar, western Uttar Pradesh and in Kutch but today its overall population is feared to be less than 300 birds.

That the storks are being pushed into oblivion primarily by the drastic loss of their habitats is an incontrovertible fact. Let us leave spaces enough for the storks assured survival into the future if for no other reason than for this unforgettable observation on one of India’s winter migrants, the White Stork, left by Donald Culross Peattie:

"For hours I watched a mother stork in a nest...The dark eyes of the patient baby-sitter shone motionless. There was no sign of restlessness. At last, the male arrived flapping his wings to break his velocity, he lit on the edge of the nest, lifted his bill to the sky and clappered with it in ceremonious greeting. The female arose and went through similar antics."

Those who know storks best say that if mates meet 50 times a day, they still go through this politeness. And the young, as soon as they are old enough to learn manners, stand up in the nest each time a parent returns and respectfully clapper their mandibles."