The only knowledge people may have of storks is the old fable that they carry human babies to their new parents. Possibly a tale from northern Germany, this belief may have sprang from the fact that the storks migrate away from their breeding grounds in late summer or early fall and return to start the breeding cycle again 9 months later.
Breeding Range and Habitat
European white storks are found distributed spottily over Europe and parts of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Countries that host breeding populations of the stork include Spain, England, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Turkey, northern Greece, portions of Russia and Azerbaijan. African populations are found in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, with an additional small colony in Cape Province, South Africa. As large wading birds they are most comfortable near shallow lakes, ponds and flooded pastures or meadows near wooded country where they can nest and hunt frogs, minnows, mollusks, crustaceans, fish and tadpoles. If this is not available, they have adapted to building nests on man-made structures and foraging in open pasture land where they can eat lizards, snakes, rodents, eggs and insects.
Because they are large birds, European storks rely on soaring skills to help them make the long migration south. Because of this, they dislike flying over water because they do not get the lift that they prefer for travelling long distances. However, some small populations fly over the Mediterranean Sea to get to their African wintering grounds. But most birds from the western part of Europe will take the Straits of Gibraltar, with most eastern European birds opting for flying over the Bosporus and through the Middle East to limit long stretches of flight over water. While most migrating flocks go to tropical Africa, some white storks winter in Iran, India or southeastern China. Some Danish storks fly to South Africa, some 20,000km away, to winter. Migrating flocks may total 11,000 individuals.
European white storks are born with down covering their bodies. As they age, they develop plumage similar to that of the adult with white bodies and heads, but with brownish black wings and brown legs and bill. On reaching adulthood, the wing coverts and flight feathers become glossy black with touches of green and purple iridescence. The bill and legs slowly become red. Adults also have a ruff of white feathers low on the neck used for courtship displays. Adults may be 4 feet all with wingspreads of 7 feet. Essentially voiceless as adults, the birds communicate by posturing and bill clacking.
Breeding and Offspring
Storks are monogamous during the breeding season. However, stork pairs to do not migrate or winter together. Males come back to the nest first and the pair will add to an old nest if available. Ornithologists estimate that some nests have been in use for centuries. Females usually lay three to five eggs. Eggs are incubated for just over a month. The young fledge at eight to nine weeks, although fledglings many stay near the nest longer in hopes of being fed. The young birds reach sexual maturity at age 4 and may continue to breed successfully for as long as 30 years.
Populations of storks are declining across Europe primarily due to habitat reduction. Pollution, wetlands drainage and pesticides appear to be the main culprits. Hunting in the Middle East and Africa have also decimated bird populations. Drought, pesticides, hunting and habitat reduction have all limited habitat in the storks' winter ranges. Current efforts at conservation focus on preserving their habitats. Most European and African countries now protect the white stork.
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