Long before the actual migratory behavior of birds and animals was known, precisely where seasonal animals went to during the winter or summer months, was a longstanding puzzle.
Unable to comprehend any other explanation, Aristotle believed that migratory animals simply morphed into one another, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Another theory, proposed by Harvard vice president Charles Morton in the 17th century, claimed that birds flew ever higher as the months went by and spent the winter perched on the Moon. And even as recently as the 19th century, Victorian folklore would have you believe that swallows slept at the bottom of fishponds during the winter but hatching reinvigorated them in the spring.
As madcap as these theories might sound today, in Aristotle’s era (when the true geography of the world was still relatively unknown) or the Victorian era (when the stamina and robustness of even tiny songbirds were wholly underestimated) explanations like these would have been relatively sensible. But our understanding of the natural world soon began to change thanks to a truly amazing discovering.
In 1822, a hunter in the town of Klutz, in Western Pomerania, Germany, shot down a white stork that he spotted flying past the town. As the stork tumbled to the ground, the man noticed that it was carrying with it an extraordinary bit of baggage: a 3ft-long arrow-tipped spear, which had been driven up through the bird’s breast and out of the side of its neck, just below its face. Miraculously, the spear had missed the bird’s vertebrae and major blood vessels, and as a result, it had survived its encounter. The stork’s body was collected for scientific research, taxidermied (with the spear still in place), and put on display in the Zoological Collection of Germany’s University of Rostock, where it remains to this day.
Discovering a bird that had survived such a devastating injury would be impressive enough, but it turned out that the spear impaled through the stork’s body was made of African blackwood. This single stork, ultimately, could only have been impaled by such a weapon more than 2,000 miles away in Africa. This could not have occurred anywhere in Europe.
The discovery of the Klutz stock, known in German as the pfeilstorch, or “arrow stork”, began to reshape how 19th century naturalists thought of the natural world. The birds seen in Europe in the summer clearly did not hibernate or morph into another species but instead journeyed much further than anyone could ever have anticipated, in search of better feeding grounds, nesting grounds, or opportunities to mate. A new theory of natural migration began to develop, and as the decades went by, the incontrovertible proof the pfeilstorch provided scientists helped them account for the annual movements of countless birds, fish, insects, and other animals.
Incredibly, in that time, another two dozen pfeilstorchen, each impaled on all manner of different African weaponry, were discovered across Europe, proving without a doubt that zoologists’ newly emerging theories were indeed correct. The natural world, it seems, was hardier than had previously been thought, not only in surviving such a terrible injury but in being able to travel thousands of miles around the globe every single year.