for National Geographic News
From September through March throughout central and eastern Europe, thousands of bulky nests of branches, twigs, dirt, rags, and other debris sit empty on rooftops, church spires, telephone poles, and just about anything else that's tall and has a decent view
What an eyesore, eh? Not at all, say many Europeans. The nests belong to their beloved white storks (Ciconia ciconia), wading birds that grow three feet (one meter) tall, have long bare legs, and a pointed bill.
"I think white storks are the most loved wild birds of several European nations," said Peter Lovaszi, the white stork protection program leader for Birdlife Hungary in Budapest.
The oldest white storks nests have been in use for hundreds of years. These nests are more than seven feet (two meters) wide and ten feet (three meters) deep and serve as the breeding homes for the storks, which begin to arrive in April from their African wintering grounds.
The birds are loyal to their nests and return to the same ones every year. Male storks often arrive a few days before females, repair their nests, and then wait for the arrival of their mates.
Occasionally fights will break out over a nest. Birds are more faithful to their nest than each other. "Sometimes a later [arriving] male will chase away a former male [occupant] from the nest. But the female stays in the nest and will be a pair of the new male," Lovaszi said.
Many people are known to place platforms on their rooftops to encourage a breeding pair without a nest to build one on top of their home.
"The people like to have a nest of a white stork on their house," said Kai-Michael Thomsen, a white stork conservationist at the Michael-Otto Institute with Birdlife Germany in Bergenhusen. Thomsen says legend holds that white storks deliver babies and protect houses against fire.
As such, when white storks arrive they are met with open arms and are cause for celebration. Areas of high nest concentrations serve as tourist attractions.
But over the last century the celebrations have been tempered. "Until the late 1980s we had a strong decline of the population in most parts of the breeding range," Thomsen said.
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