In this special edition of Mooney Goes Wild Derek travels to the picturesque village of Rühstädt in Germany.
Just 240 people live in the village, which in the summer is also home to one of the highest densities of nesting White Storks in Europe. Their enormous nests – essentially, massive bundles of sticks the size of tractor tyres – adorn rooftops all over the village.
So important is Rühstädt for storks that it has been designated an official European Stork Village – the only one in all of Germany, and a key part of the European Stork Village Network, which spans 15 villages in 15 countries.
Derek meets Carola Benson a member of the local stork club and who, like most people in the village, is extremely proud of these birds.
The White Stork is a huge, rather imposing bird, standing around 1.1 metres tall and with a wingspan of over 2 metres. Males and females look identical: their bodies and long, snake-like necks are pure white, as are the front halves of their wings. Their flight feathers, however, are jet black, giving the bird a striking two-tone appearance. They stand on extremely long, thin red legs, which match their long, pointed red beaks.
The general appearance of the White Stork is very like that of a large white heron with pied wings. But in flight it is easy to tell the difference... once you know the secret. While herons fly with their long necks tucked in against their bodies – in effect, folded into a tight 'S' shape – storks fly with their necks fully outstretched, their long red legs trailing well behind their white tails. It sort of makes them look like a long pale stick with black-and-white wings!
White Storks are highly migratory, with most of the population spending the summer breeding season in Europe, then migrating to sub-Saharan Africa to wait out the northern hemisphere winter. But in recent years it looks like a major behavioural shift has begun, which climate change may well be driving.
Derek also interviews Niall Hatch of BridWatch Ireland who explains how increasing numbers of White Storks are now choosing to winter in Iberia, and indeed even in parts of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Niall believes that climate change may be affecting the storks' annual migration.
In Rühstädt the storks have continued to follow their species’ migratory tradition, arriving back in the village each spring, repairing and adding new sticks to the existing rooftop nests, laying and incubating eggs and then feeding their hungry offspring. A female will lay anywhere from 1 to 7 eggs each season, with 4 being the typical number.
Incubation begins as soon as the first egg has been laid, which is unusual in the avian world and is something that storks have in common with birds of prey. This means that the chicks are staggered in age when they hatch out and, as with birds of prey, the elder, stronger chicks usually manage to snag the lion’s share of the food.
Only in particularly good years, when there is an abundance of food, will all of the brood survive to take their maiden flights. Unlike birds of prey, stork chicks don’t actively attack and kill their weaker siblings: they simply let the natural laws of supply and demand take their course.
Storks like to nest in secure, elevated locations that are close to open short-cropped fields, marshes and wetlands. This is one of the key reasons why Rühstädt makes such an attractive breeding location for them. White Storks are entirely carnivorous, and the surrounding countryside supports an abundance of food for them and their broods: grasshoppers, earthworms, mice, frogs, lizards and even snakes are all on the menu. They will even catch and eat small birds, if the opportunity arises.
Summer on a German rooftop, with no shelter from the blazing sun, can be punishingly hot. Birds are unable to sweat, so it is common to see storks with their bills agape, panting in an effort to cool down. If panting doesn’t quite cut it, however, the storks have evolved a rather more surprising, not to mention unsavoury, method of reducing their body temperatures.
It is certainly true that the sloping roofs below each of the stork nests in Rühstädt have all been thoroughly whitewashed by the birds. But the humans who share the village with them don’t seem mind
In fact, the people of Rühstädt are so happy to accommodate their intercontinental visitors that local farmers even specially cut the grass to help the storks if food supplies are running low.
Right across the European Stork Villages Network, from Spain to Poland, and from Switzerland to Greece, local people go to similar lengths to help their avian neighbours. In many European cultures, it is considered good luck to have storks nesting on your property, and people deliberately place old wagon wheels and other platforms on posts and rooftops to encourage the birds to build their nests.
White Storks Bill-Clapping video by Carola Benson
The network was first established in 1994, and in each of the 15 countries where it operates local people must demonstrate that they take special care of their stork populations. In turn, their communities are officially recognised as special cultural and natural heritage sites, promoting tourism and unlocking European funding for conservation and awareness efforts.
In a way, the European Stork Villages Network is a celebration of international cooperation and shared heritage right across a continent that, until recently, was all too frequently torn apart by strife.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Europe underwent unprecedented trauma. The outbreak of the Second World War brought misery and suffering to millions, as cities, towns and villages were devastated.
It is only in the past couple of centuries that we humans have really begun to understand the phenomenon of bird migration. As recently as the 18th Century, for example, it was widely believed that Swallows spent the winter in hibernation in mud at the bottom of lakes. That seemed the most rational explanation for the sudden vanishing act performed by them each autumn, followed by their abrupt reappearance in the spring.
White Storks were also famous for their own sudden annual disappearance once the breeding season had ended. Nobody knew for sure where they went, though on very rare occasions some rather gruesome evidence would present itself.
There are multiple records of storks returning to their nesting quarters in Europe impaled by arrows that had passed right through their bodies and become lodged. These arrows looked quite unlike any typically used by hunters in Europe... and that’s because they were fired at the birds by tribal hunters in Africa.
Skilled though many of the African marksmen were, sometimes a direct hit failed to prove fatal. Vital organs intact, the occasional lucky survivor would continue its migration as normal, returning to Europe pierced through by the arrow.
The Germans even have a name for these birds: Pfeilstorch, or "arrow-storks", and to date no fewer than 25 have been documented. The most famous was found in 1822 near a village called Klütz, in the very north of Germany. It was stuffed and to this day remains on display in the zoological collection of the University of Rostock, the African arrow still piercing its neck.
Arrows are but one of the hazards facing storks during migration. Migration is such a risky business that, as we heard earlier, a growing number of storks are choosing to give it up altogether. Climate change and habitat loss have drastically reshaped the environment upon which storks depend, and the simple fact is that today they have more inhospitable desert and more unpredictable weather to deal with. For a small but growing number, the benefits of migration no longer outweigh the disadvantages.
Storks are large, heavy birds, and flying long distances by flapping massive wings is not a very energy-efficient way to cover long distances. They prefer to travel by soaring on thermals – columns of rising warm air that form when the ground is heated by the sun – in much the same way that vultures, eagles and other large birds of prey do. They use the rising air to lift their bodies high into the sky on motionless outstretched wings. Then, when sufficiently high, they glide onwards, losing height as they do so, until they reach the next thermal, where the whole process begins again. It is a rather slow way to travel, but crucially it requires very little effort.
The problem is that thermals only form over land, not over water. This means that storks and other large soaring birds have great difficulty crossing wide expanses of water, most importantly the Mediterranean Sea.
Their solution is to concentrate at the very shortest crossing points: the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, and the Bosphorus Straits in Turkey, where the gap between continents is just a few kilometres at most. Virtually all of Europe’s migrating White Storks congregate at one of these two points each autumn, streaming across the narrow stretches of water when weather conditions are right and flapping can be kept to a minimum.
In the past, the fact that storks would, without fail, concentrate at these well-known bottlenecks each autumn proved extremely tempting to hunters. Before departing Europe, the birds would generally be soaring at altitude, out of range of most guns. But by the time they had made it to the other side of the straits, with no thermals having kept them aloft over the water, gravity ensured that they were flying much lower . . . making them much easier targets for hunters.
The following spring, as the birds returned north to their breeding grounds, the same drama would play out in reverse, with the birds now easy prey for gunmen on the European side of the Mediterranean. Thankfully wildlife protection laws are much stricter today, and although some illegal killing of storks does still occur, it no longer impacts the population in such a serious way.
Europe is also home to another, related species of stork: the Black Stork. Shier and less tolerant of people than their white cousins, in the breeding season Black Storks shun towns and villages for riverside cliffs and dense forests, nesting on rocky outcrops and in inaccessible large trees.
Slightly smaller than White Storks, though still massive birds, they have entirely black plumage, save for a broad triangle of white on the belly that extends onto the birds’ axilliary feathers, or ‘armpits’. Viewed at close range in good light, the black feathers on their necks take on an iridescent green sheen, rather like the tail feathers of a Magpie.
As with White Storks, their beaks and legs are red, they enjoy a carnivorous diet and they migrate between Eurasia and Africa. Black Storks prefer solitude when breeding, so they don’t gather into breeding colonies: nesting pairs like to be at least a kilometre away from their nearest neighbours.
With the decline of hunting pressures and the introduction of conservation measures, both of Europe’s stork species appear to be doing quite well, and their futures seem secure. The same cannot be said for the White Stork’s closest living relative, unfortunately. The Oriental Stork is the East Asian counterpart of the White Stork, and the two species look extremely similar. The Oriental Stork is even larger than its western relation, however, and it has a robust all-black beak, rather than a red one. It also differs in having pale eyes: the eyes of White Storks are dark.
Formerly a common breeder in marshland in China, Korea, Japan and southern parts of the Russian Far East, in the 19th Century a combination of hunting pressure and habitat loss devastated the Oriental Stork population, and a severe decline set in. By 1960 the species was extinct in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, and total population numbers may have fallen as low as just a few hundred individuals.
Happily, strict legal protections in Russia have greatly aided the species’ recovery in recent decades. Reintroduction programmes are currently underway in both Japan and Korea, using chicks from the increasing Russian population, and population numbers are now back in the low thousands. In Japan, a network of stork villages, similar to the one that spans Europe, has been established, and the birds are viewed with immense local pride.
As the community of Rühstädt has proven, local pride, increased awareness and a willingness to make allowances for nature can go a long way towards saving a species. The White Stork is once again a common and familiar sight in villages across Europe, and even appears to be expanding its range. A pair nested in England this summer, for the first time in over 600 years. Could they also begin breeding here in Ireland?
So, watch this space. Before long, storks in Ireland may no longer be confined to margarine wrappers and tall tales about bringing babies... they might be soaring in our skies, foraging in our fields and nesting on our rooftops. Perhaps one day the time will come for us to join the European Stork Village Network too.