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White storks returning to their breeding sites in Germany, after flying back from a winter spent in Africa or perhaps Spain, are a signal spring can not be far away. Even though it might still be 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 with thickly woven branches, sticks and leaves, the interiors layered with moss, grasses, twigs or even pieces of rag, they are in use until September.
And many of the nests are under constant observation, including by their own webcam.
There is 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, but, although the storks are monogamous during the season, if the same pair unite in following years it is more due to their bond with the nest site than choice of mate.
Although ornithologists have proved this also saves time as it shortens the courtship ritual.
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 from 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 houses to bring good luck.
And this despite living in close proximity to a nest not always an overwhelmingly pleasant experince, 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. This would then find a baby in a cave or marsh, carry the child in a basket either held in their beaks or on their backs, drop it 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 in some areas of Germany 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 where their populations are stabilizing, and in some areas recovering.
Measures designed to support and preserve the white stork are subsidized by various organizations, as is research into improving the reserves, the aim being that both man and stork can successfully use a protected natural environment.
One organization, The Stork Foundation, has a motto - Stoerche fuer unsere Kinder, "Storks for our children", and it is one of many in Germany who believe Germany needs a habitat which supports the stork, not only because they are such a heartwarming sight when they return in the spring heralding the warmer months, but as this is also the basis for the existence of other living things in the ecosystem, from other birds and species of animals to plants.
It is in fact 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: Storks Nest, Bleckede: Photographer Andrea Schmid owner Biosphaerium Elbtalaue GmbH - Der Klapperstorch, Carl Spitzweg 1808-1885 The Yorck Project: Meisterwerke der Malerei.....both via de.Wikipedia
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