When white storks return to their breeding sites in Germany after flying back from wintering in Africa, or perhaps Spain, it's time to celebrate as they are official "Harbingers of Spring". Despite it being wet, cold or even snow covered in some areas of the country.
Storks are so popular they have their own German Stork Route, Der Deutschen Storchenstraße. A tourist route in the north and east of Germany, it begins to come to life towards the end of March and is lined by spectacular storks nests. Large, bulky and made from thickly woven branches, sticks and leaves, the interiors layered with moss, grasses, twigs or even pieces of rag, they are in use until September. Often under constant observation, including by their own webcam.
But there are many other nesting areas for storks in Germany, with quite a history to some of them, as they have had occupants during the breeding season for hundreds of years.
Male storks arrive first and breeding pairs make fresh additions to the nest together, and are monogamous during the season, but if the same pair unite in following years it has more to do with their bond to the nest site rather than the choice of mate.
Although ornithologists have proved this also saves them time because it shortens the courtship ritual; a fact that might also have occurred to the storks.
Unless they have been upset in some way white storks have little fear of humans, so nests can be seen in trees, on cliff-ledges as well as lying in secluded spots on the ground. While since the middle ages they have used man-made structures as a base for their nests in Europe, from rooftops, chimneys, and walls to purpose-built nest towers and telephone poles.
As German folklore held that a nest on a house was a protection against fires, and that a stork's soul was human, the birds were also encouraged to nest on homes to bring good luck.
And this despite living in close proximity to a nest not always an overwhelmingly pleasant experience, because they are very messy and hardly sweet smelling.
There was also a custom in Germany that a family wanting children leave candy on a windowsill as a "message" for a stork. The bird would then find a baby in a cave or marsh, carry it in a basket either held in their beaks or on their backs, then drop the child down the correct chimney or give it to the mother.
So homes were built to be "stork-friendly" even for those passing through, or over.
Once a typical breeding bird in Northern Germany's fields and river floodplains, civilization, in the form of levee building, wetland drainage and intensive farming, severely affected the stork's habitat, not only in this region but throughout Germany.
Even under optimal conditions out of three to five hatched chicks, only half will survive, but lack of food was leading to no survivors. So nestling mortality was the main reason birds, returning from their migration, began to fly past what had been their nesting grounds for centuries in search of new and more suitable areas for nest building and breeding.
For Germans a stork nesting on house rooftops is a symbol that nature is still intact, so "Stork Conservation" became a widespread concern across the country as numbers continued to fall.
Little more than 20 years ago there were areas of Germany where the number of breeding pairs left was so low they faced extinction, however there have been many projects working towards long-term survival of the storks and their populations are stabilizing, and in some regions recovering.
Measures designed to support and preserve the white stork are subsidized by various organizations, as is research into improving the reserves, with the aim that a protected natural environment can be used by both man and stork successfully.
One organization, The Stork Foundation, has a motto - "Störche für unsere Kinder", "Storks for our children", and it is one of many in Germany that believe Germany needs habitat to support the stork. Not only because they are such a heartwarming sight as they return in the spring heralding the warmer months, but because this is also the basis for the existence of other living things in the ecosystem; from other birds and species of animals to plants.
And it is also "our" habitat.
The overall population of White Storks in Western Europe has declined, but in Germany conservation efforts are turning the tide, so hopefully there WILL be "Storks for our children to welcome each spring".
Images 1 and 3 Benediktbeuern Abbey, Bavaria by benediktbeuern.us: Der Klapperstorch, Carl Spitzweg 1808-1885 The Yorck Project: Meisterwerke der Malerei
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