The pfeilstorch of Mecklenburg, or how we came to know that birds migrate

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.


The arrow-stork of Mecklenburg might be my favorite object in the Atlas Obscura:

Until the 19th century, the sudden annual disappearance of white storks each fall had been a profound mystery to European bird-watchers. Aristotle thought the storks went into hibernation with the other disappearing avian species, perhaps at the bottom of the sea. According to some fanciful accounts, "flocks of swallows were allegedly seen congregating in marshes until their accumulated weight bent the reeds into the water, submerging the birds, which apparently then settled down for a long winter's nap." A 1703 pamphlet titled "An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming," argued that the disappearing birds flew to the moon for the winter.

On May 21, 1822, a stunning piece of evidence came to light, which suggested a less extra-terrestrial, if no less wondrous, solution to the quandary of the disappearing birds. A white stork, shot on the Bothmer Estate near Mecklenburg, was discovered with an 80-cm-long Central African spear embedded in its neck. The stork had flown the entire migratory journey from its equatorial wintering grounds in this impaled state. The arrow-stork, or pfeilstorch, can now be found, stuffed, in the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock. It is not alone. Since 1822, some 25 separate cases of pfeilstorches have been recorded.

Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock


  1. awesome article. I think you guys have been the best guest bloggers so far. or, most interesting at least.

  2. Agreed….very cool stuff from the AO…and this stork story is one I had read about elsewhere, and is indeed a wonderful thing ( minus the part of the stork taking one in the neck…ouch!!)

  3. “And now, my esteemed colleagues, I turn to the conclusion we are compelled to accept. The moon is inhabited by Central African hunters. Now we must apply our not insignificant minds to another, deeper question: how, indeed, did they get there?”

  4. Remarkable that it could still fly.

    It might be my future bias, but they had to have heard of migration by this point, no? The Britons had colonies on five continents. Stories of passenger pigeons, caribou, buffalo, etc. had to be trickling back by this time.

    It’s weirdly humbling to try to put yourself in the position of not knowing a fact like this and try to think of how you could have discovered it.

  5. @Sceadugenga

    The answer’s obvious! They just held onto the spear and let the stork do all the work!

  6. I can’t help but feel sorry for the stork. It flew all that way with a spear in its neck only to get plugged by some other bugger (who probably wasn’t going to eat it) when it made it back.

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