The White Stork of Alsace: Emblem of Alsace, near-Extinction to Success Story; Fact File & Association with Babies
White Stork, Emblem of Alsace
A Room with a View
We looked out of our Munster hotel bedroom window in wonder. Atop a tree was a large concoction of twigs at least a metre wide and standing in the middle, on one leg, was a huge, red-billed, mainly white bird. The wing-tips, folded down, were black and his leg (I presumed the other also) matched the bill.
He stood, an elegant statue, motionless for at least ten minutes, the feathers below his long neck an impressive cream ruff. He and his mate had not long returned to Alsace from a nine month sojourn in North Africa . He had come back in early Spring, to rebuild the family nest, then she had followed later, to lay eggs. Together they would soon be caring for their offspring, usually four, who would migrate in early Autumn and the parents would follow some time later. An amazing instinct enables them to then find their offspring and they care for their young for a long time.
A second tree in the hotel garden supported two more nests. The oddest thing of all was the structure which contained the fourth nest. It was a man-made support, a concrete telegraph pole to all intent, with a circular, wire, low-rimmed basket at its summit. Into this bowl a couple of storks had woven twigs and the like to create their own home on this fabricated ‘tree’ and the female sat therein.
Why would man build such a thing for these birds? The answer lies in their history.
Building, nesting, sharing the town
In Munster, at the edge of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, France, you will see white storks soaring overhead, walking in the fields and in the park. Their half-ton nests are on just about every rooftop as well as in the trees. The roofs inevitably acquire large white splashes all over them but no one seems to mind. Maybe the smell of the local Munster cheese helps to camouflage any odour. Some nests are in the trees, whereas others are placed in the man-made wire baskets.
It wasn’t always so. In 1983 the stork population of Alsace had dwindled to fewer than nine pairs. Several factors contributed to their demise; crashing into power lines during migration, African droughts depleting their winter food supplies and conflicts in Africa causing starving people to eat them.
The stork is Alsace’s emblem, a symbol of fertility and fidelity and the bringer of good luck to any household where it nests.
The Association for the Protection and Reintroduction of Storks in Alsace and Lorraine set up a programme to help save these birds from extinction and since then the stork population of Alsace has slowly risen to 600 pairs. The man-made ‘trees’ were constructed to allow every opportunity of nesting, power lines had markers added so that the birds could identify them and storks were killed less often for food.
The reintroduction of storks to Alsace initially involved keeping them in captivity. We were told that after three years they lost their instinct to migrate. However, when finally released into the wild, the young born subsequently possessed that instinct and migration began once again, though not all go to North Africa; some are content to stay in Spain. The White Stork is now a protected species.
Everywhere you look on the skyline, there are stork nests on the top of church steeples, in valleys between roofs and occupying precarious outposts of gable ends. Unfortunately luck will not visit you by way of a stork’s nest if you live in a house where there has been a divorce! However, birds and humans live in close proximity and seem to rely on each other.
These birds have a remarkable greeting each time the male comes back to the nest. There is no stork ‘call’ but they clack their bills making a noise not unlike a pneumatic drill, at the same time stretching out their wings and throwing back their heads, each almost doubled onto its own back. I could have watched them for hours. The bill-clacking starts somewhere between 5 or 6 in the morning - make sure the shutters are closed!
Honey, I'm Home!
Alsatian History & Language
Alsace, along with the department of Lorraine, has seen migrations of its own. Both departments of France have crossed the border and become German several times, during various invasions as well as during the World Wars. The Alsatian identity is therefore a mixture of both French and Germanic origins, as well as having a language and culture of its own. Does this also explain the German Shepherd dog also being referred to as an Alsatian?
The Alsatian language, comprised of two dialects (low and high Rhine districts), was in decline around about the same time as that of the storks. There was a campaign at the time which portrayed a grandfather and grandson walking along a street somewhere in Alsace. The little boy asked,
‘Grandfather, why don’t the storks come back to us any more?’
‘Well you see’, said his grandfather, ‘we no longer speak their language so they think they’ve come to the wrong place and move on.’
Fortunately, now they do come back to the right place and Alsace has its emblem restored.
A Week of Stork-Spotting
This is not difficult to do in Alsace, especially around Munster and Strasbourg, the main city of Alsace and of course the official seat of the European Parliament.
We never tired of looking upwards to the rooftops, down into the fields from our coach during excursions, or out of our hotel windows to watch their lives unfolding to and from their nests.
The stork is part of Alsace’s identity; if it goes, then so will Alsace. For such a huge bird to be seen walking happily near people in a park seems absurd but that’s what happens. For such a huge bird to build a massive nest on a ridiculously narrow ridge of a building seems absurd but that’s what happens. For such a huge bird to attract such affection, emotion and loyalty might seem absurd but that’s what happens and it’s wonderful.
Storks & Humans
They are majestic, patient, tolerant, comical, statuesque and fascinating. Apart from seeing them everywhere we went, we were privileged to have a bird’s eye view (yes, really - from the second floor) of four pairs of storks for six days. Even during meals we could glance up to see a one-legged sentinel keeping guard over us all. I can understand why Alsatians love living side by side with these creatures.
I love exploring the countryside, bird-watching, keeping alert for that brief glimpse of a water-vole in the canal or a deer in the fields. The strange thing about Alsace is that nature comes to you; the storks enter the everyday hubbub of life. They are integral. In fact, in their own way, they run the town!
Protecting Birds, Animals & Ourselves
How can we not be inspired and intrigued by this majestic bird? It soars above the Vosges mountains and valleys, its neck stuck out in front (unlike its relative the heron which folds his) and its feet trailing. Its white body against a blue sky, black at each tip of its huge wing-span and its red bill a beacon for its body to follow, this bird never fails to draw the eye, to catch the imagination, to bring a smile.
How lucky we were to be able to observe four pairs of them at close quarters as they went about their daily business, occasionally posing for admirers; doubly lucky as their species faced extinction not long ago.
It is our duty to continue to protect not only these birds but many others of the animal kingdom. Imagine being without such creatures. Imagine the loss to nature, to the natural turn of the wild, to our wonderful world.
We must continue to be aware, to care for, to protect everything in our world which is vulnerable, threatened, unable to stand up for itself. That of course includes human beings and the environment which is life-blood to us all.
Copyright annart/AFC 2015
Stork Fact File
The White Stork’s species’ name is Ciconia ciconia. The French word for stork is ‘cigogne’ (pronounced ‘seegoynia’ so very similar to its Latin name).
They are wading birds and belong to the family Ciconiidae, the only family in the order Ciconiiformes which was once much larger and held a number of families.
Though they are wading birds, they usually live in much drier habitats than the closely related herons, spoonbills and ibises.
Storks eat frogs, mice, snakes and small birds (including their own if they are starving).
A stork can live for more than 30 years.
They are mute.
The collective noun for a group of storks is ‘muster of storks’ or ‘phalanx of storks’.
They soar and glide in flight, using thermal air currents, to conserve energy. They are heavy birds with wide wingspans.
Nests are large and often used for many years, possibly growing to two metres across and three metres deep!
Storks & Babies
‘Mummy, where do babies come from?’ How many people still tell the story that the Stork brings the baby cradled in a sheet hanging from its beak as it flies?
In Greek mythology storks stole babies. Hera turned her rival into a stork, and the stork-woman attempted to steal her son.
Egyptian mythology used a stork to represent the soul. The return of a stork signified the return of the soul, when the person came ‘alive’ again.
In Norse mythology, the stork stood for family values and commitment to one another.
Storks were believed to mate for life, so have become a symbol of fidelity. In fact, they don’t always mate for life but they do tend to come back to the same nests every year and usually mate with the same partner.
The stork’s natural behaviour gives credence to their link with the arrival of babies and with fertility. The symbolism of their migration pattern along with their history in myths and legends explains the continued use of ‘the stork brings the baby’. Many human babies are conceived in the Summer or early Autumn, as are the storks’, so tend to arrive in Spring as the storks arrive in Europe.
‘The White Storks of Alsace’: http://www.butterfield.com
Storks’ association with babies: www.todayifoundout.com
Some facts & 1 photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ciconia_ciconia_-Alsace_-France_-8.jpg