I promised storks. I thought they could wait a while. But the storks themselves demand telling right now.
And not the promised storks of Alsace, but the storks of Bodensee are centre and front of the story.
We were pedalling back from a herb-gathering ride, and I saw one-two-three…more… flying over the willows by the Alten Rhein (the old Rhine which forms the boundary between us and Austria). We stopped – and so in a sense did they, pausing their directional flight to spend five minutes, maybe more, making spirals and loops in an ever-changing formation. There were thirty of them. Thirty storks!
Flight planning meeting
When Mani was a boy, there were storks around here. But for the first decade-plus of our summers here, we saw none.
Then – it was 2011 – we saw two (we couldn’t presume to call them a couple) regularly in the fields, and they were joined for the wondrous sight of 13 storks all gathered on the airport making their flight-plans for migration.
Since then summers here have had storks. Up to four in nearby fields. But this lot… breathtaking!
So now of course I’ve done my research ( I love Wikipedia), and find that Mani’s memory matches. The last wild storks were seen in Switzerland in 1950, seven years before he “migrated” to NZ. Then industrialisation and changes in agriculture including draining of wetlands and large-scale maize growing took them to “Near Threatened” status across Europe in 1988.
Since then preservation and reintroduction programmes have succeeded in bringing them back to “Least Concern” status. Programmes like the one we visited in Alsace have been given much of the credit – and in Switzerland there’s been a programme of release of zoo-reared storks. Success!
Well – some success. The last figures I found were that 175 pairs were recorded breeding in Switzerland in 2000. But their breeding success rates were seen to be low. Perhaps they’ve got better at it in the last decade, for us to have seen 30 in one flight.
A “phalanx” of storks
There’s something of a moral here about the risks and benefits of cohabiting with humans. Storks benefitted by the introduction of agriculture – they like open meadows instead of scrubland, and they liked that humans liked them enough to allow, and even encourage them despite the filth they drop, to build nests on tall human-made structures with tiled roofs that release warmth into the night air. Then changes in human activity threatened their existence, but human regard for them also supported their return. In Poland, they even uplift nests from the top of pylons and re-settle them in safer places. The moral might be something about the benefits of being a large imposing charismatic bird with a heap of mythological values about it instead of something small and scurrying and creepy!
The other storks, the ones I thought I’d be writing about, were more static.
The wild ones were in their nests on the towers of old buildings in Alsation towns, still feeding their young which are fully-fledged now, but not yet leaving home.
The city door at Turkheim, Alsace
Why one of the collective nouns is “a filth of storks”
They reminded me of a wonderful evening some years back in Rust by the Neusiedlersee – the lake that separates Austria and Hungary. We wandered into town – me without my camera, an infrequent mistake but always deeply regretted! That was when I discovered that Rust is famous for its storks – they seemed on be on almost every rooftop down one old street. It was sunset – and the storks standing in their nests, or swooping in on parental duties, all had their white breasts tinged with pink. Of course I went back with my camera the next evening…. No sunset. Just the loud beak-clatter which they use to communicate.
St Martins Cathedral in Colmar
Perhaps they’ve recently cleaned the tiles…
Then there were the storks in the Stork Reintroduction Centre at Hunawihr. By 1983, that region of Alsace was down to three nesting pairs. The diagnosis was that extinction could follow the dangers of migration: electrocution, hunting, drought in Africa, and pesticides. Solution: remove the migratory instinct.
Raising young in umbrella’d comfort
If you’re down to three pairs, they’d better stay home and breed!
So, they keep some eggs in the reproduction aviary, and the baby storks stay confined there for three winters. Tough love, but by the time they’re let out as sexually mature adults, they’ve lost their migratory urge.
They stay safely in the Centre’s park or neighbouring villages and do their work of increasing the species.
Their young pop out of the egg with their migratory urge intact, but there are enough of them now to take the risk. By 2011, there were 600 nesting pairs in Alsace.
The Stork Reintroduction Centre’s bird park
Storks spend so much time preening they were used as a symbol for conceit in medieval England. When you’ve got into this mess, it’s a job!
So now the Centre is working on otters – from 1991 they’ve been releasing then regularly into the wild.
An otter demonstrating fish-catching skills in the Centre’s Fishing Animal Show
It pays to be cute if you need to be rescued.
I was a bit less impressed to find Humboldt and Blackfooted Penguins, and “Byronia sea-lions” ( South American Sea-lion) in their Fishing Animal Show… but hey, they were real crowd-pleasers, and if attracting the euros is what it takes to save the local species, perhaps our Southern sealife can support the principle.
So, what is it that has us stopping to gaze at these fine birds standing in a field, or soaring in the sky?
We’re in good company. The ancient Egyptians and the Hebrews gave the stork special virtues. The Greeks and Romans believed that the birds took care of their aging parents, transporting and feeding them, and that eventually a stork would not die, but flew to islands and took on the appearance of humans. Muslims respected storks for visiting Mecca on their migration path.
Maybe borrowing from the Greeks and Romans, there was a German belief that storks’ souls were human. Having a stork-nest on your roof was also thought to be a protection against fire, so in Germany and Holland, they’d build platforms to encourage nesting. Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians believe that storks bring harmony to a family on whose property they nest.
And then of course, there’s the whole baby-bringing business, which is a very ancient and wide-spread belief, and Jung and Freud both had a lot to say about that!
Two more tidbits, just because I love them.
- a Polish folk tale relates how God made the stork’s plumage white, while the Devil gave it black wings, imbuing it with both good and evil impulses – like dropping babies thereby causing birth defects, and like leaving a birthmark nevus flammeus nuchae on the back of babies’ heads, commonly known as stork-bite. I have one still, and never knew why. My mother, not being raised with storks, blamed the forceps.
- In medieval England, storks were associated with adultery. Which (perhaps!) links to the fact they often try out several possible partners, though breeding only starts when there is a stable pairing. Good practice I think!
Here’s my final joy… a list of the collective nouns for storks, lifted from, of all places, the NZ Birds website.
Storks, a clatter of
Storks, a cluster of
Storks, a filth of
Storks, a flight of
Storks, a flock of
Storks, a muster of
Storks, a mustering of
Storks, a pair of
Storks, a phalanx of
Storks, a silence of
Storks, a swoop of
I might add – a soar of… Both for their flight, and for what they do to our spirit.