Antique Nests Give Storks Room at the Top in Europe

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According to Lovaszi, white storks have made their breeding homes in towns and farmhouses for centuries. "Probably storks think it is good to live close to us, but we do not know exactly why," he said.

One possible reason, Lovaszi suggests, is that birds traditionally found farms and the surrounding countryside rich with rodents, snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, and other prey on which to forage.

"White storks need open or semi-open grasslands as a feeding habitat," Thomsen said. "In middle Europe, you find only man-made grassland habitats. So the white stork in middle Europe uses the man-made landscape."

In parts of Spain and Turkey, Thomsen added, storks are found nesting on trees and cliffs.

Today, as in many parts of the world, the white storks are threatened by habitat loss, intensification of agriculture, and bulging cities. Many birds now build their nests on top of electric poles and get electrocuted when their nests fall on live wires.

Lovaszi said that a key change in Hungary is the decline in the country's sheep and cattle grazing tradition, out of which much of Hungary's grasslands were formed. The livestock practice is no longer profitable and shunned by younger generations.

In the absence of grazing, grass grows higher and, as a result, "storks cannot physically see prey animals," Lovaszi said. He also notes that without the fertilizing effect of livestock manure, "The ecosystem is not so healthy. There are less insects, [which are] food for storks."

Stork Conservation

To protect white storks and encourage their population recovery, conservationists now work with electricity companies to build nest holders that securely anchor nests to power poles.

In addition, conservationists have focused much effort on protecting natural stork habitat, such as wetlands.

Karin Johst, an ecological modeler with the UFZ-Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, is researching ways to increase white stork foraging opportunities in agricultural landscapes. Lack of food, Johst said, is a primary reason for nestling mortality.

According to her findings, white stork hatchlings have a better chance of survival when their parents forage in areas where meadows are mowed in successive steps throughout the birds breeding season, rather than mowed all at once, as farmers conventionally do.

"The advantage of sequential mowing is its ability to generate high-quality foraging patches during the entire breeding season, and not only during short periods," Johst said.

A key problem, however, is that conventional mowing practices are much more efficient for farmers. To induce the farmers to switch to the sequential practice, Johst proposes a government subsidy program.

"Often compensation payments are used to integrate environmental concerns into farming practices," she said.

Today, thanks to the efforts of white stork enthusiasts throughout the bird's European range, the white stork populations are stabilizing and in some areas even recovering.

According to the figures from the 1994-95 white stork census, the total world population had increased to about 166,000 breeding pairs, a gain from about 135,000 breeding pairs in 1984. The 2004-05 census in now underway, Lovaszi said.

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