Whither the Storks of Alsace ?
« Heureuse la maison choisie par la cigogne pour y faire son nid, car la foudre l'épargnera. »
Swallows may have Capistrano in Cali to return to, but what of storks, specifically the storks of Alsace, and indeed all of southwestern France ? Are they coming, going, or staying put ? Is there a scandal here, or do we find ourselves in yet another mis, dis or too-much information war ?
Storks go way back, all the way to Egypt, where the bird was, among the ancients, the hieroglyph for bâ, the soul. Floaters who ride the currents, they migrate from Europe and Asia to the south in great numbers : some 260,000 fly over the village of Burgas, Bulgaria every autumn. That they dine on snakes and frogs and rodents adds to their popularity among some humans and that “they fly in the fall to the holy lands of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism,” increases their charm for others. After Europe, they cross the Sahara to winter, and since they ride the heat swells, pass over Spain to Gibraltar en route. Greek mythology held that storks didn’t die but migrate to a distant island where they were transformed into human beings… an island that may be Rusinga on Lake Victoria in Kenya.
Everyone knows the story of storks and babies, straight out of German folklore, but not, perhaps, real historical incidents that illuminate the close connection between these large, somewhat ungainly, birds and us bipeds. Early in 1007, the cathedral in Strasbourg was partially destroyed by a winter lightning storm. Repair work began almost immediately but workers refused to ascend the towers, fearing a second round of storms and possible electrocution. Only when the storks returned in the spring and built their nests high in the belfrys and on rooves did work in the towers resume. Hence the line in French at the start of this piece, “Blest is the home where the stork makes its nest for the lightning will spare.”
And yet since December of last year, local presses across Eastern France have been ablaze with stories about storks, while local shutterbugs have taken to social media to post photographs which prove that… the storks are no longer migrating. Nearly disappeared in the region during the 1960s-70s, Alsace’s emblematic big white bird has made a comeback, with 800 couples building their large nests, some as heavy as 140 pounds, in the region’s trees and rooftops. Has global warming affected their migratory patterns ?
(Photographs, well-tempered images, “prove” almost nothing, unless we at least have a date and a time and some understanding of the image-makers point of view and I don’t mean the angle of the shot. Photos, whose figures dance around our heads every day by the hundreds if not thousands, tell us everything but mean nothing. Like translators, we must interpret everything.)
Another climate whodunit, and yes, busy man, always modernizing, always intent on being warm and well-fed, seems the likely culprit. There are at least two questions here: one, are the white storks of Alsace migrating as they’ve done from time immemorial ? And, if not, why not ? I read all the articles and contacted many of the posters and the answer seems to be : it depends on where you’re standing.
Continental Riffs is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Micro-climates, not a fashionable term for “It’s raining where I am” (in which case, Paris must be divided into multiple micro-climates because as we all know it’s pouring on the Champs Elysées when it’s sunny on the Île de la Cité, and vice-versa) play their part in the stork’s geo-thermal positioning. Many birds now fly no further than the sunny valleys of Spain, where their diet changes, feeding dangerously on human throwaways. Others, even as far north as snowy Alsace, may have found a nook sheltered from the cold to pass the winter, as the photographers assert – although we have no way to verify the dating on their images. Farmers in those Bulgarian towns, Burgas and Zavinitsa, are known for taking stranded storks, surprised by a sudden storm, into their homes. What does it all mean ?
Weird thoughts intrude : has the changing climate so jammed the signals that birds can’t tell which way to go ? Are changes to our shared terrain producing alienated birds ? What if rapidly fluctuating temperatures have altered stork’s innate capacity to perceive weather prompts in more densely populated regions like Alsace ? Or do some birds just not know when to Step It Up And Go, as the old Carolina blues puts it ? Why fly to Africa if the weather is warm in November ? Classic studies depict humans as lost in their surroundings when only a few, familiar signposts change. Add another disaster to the ever-teetering pile.
Here’s my two-bits of anecdotal reportage : tramping the hills near the Tatra mountains on the Polish border last week in freezing temperatures, taking a break from the muddy trails to follow train tracks, storks, alerted to my presence (I was kicking stones), flew nervously around their nests nests high up in the evergreens while squawking loudly. It was already below zero at five in the afternoon, just before sun set. Impossible to know why the birds hadn’t flown further south, and just as difficult to know what happens to the orientation of a migratory bird who no longer migrates.
And what about Riffs, where did it fly off to ?
Unfinished and new articles are piling up. Unfortunately I’ve been out of Paris on a rigorous teaching schedule and am only getting back to My Real Life of Words during this Spring Break week in Eastern Europe. Fiction, meta-fiction and reportage coming up. My current teaching schedule has me here through March so we’ll see how it goes. Thanks to those who took paid subscriptions. There are over 90 articles up now.
If you’re online and if what some call reality has you down, and if France and Twitter are your thing, you can’t do better than https://twitter.com/p_bischetti. He took the photo from Strasbourg at the top and maintains, in a very even tone and without any data at all, that yes, more and more of the big white birds, family Ciconia ciconia in Latin, are staying put. Maybe they just like staying close to where they were born. That, too, is instinctual.
-JG, 28.2-1.3 23
Dear Fred, I was trying to point out that French storks and this phenomenon are not uniqe, this also happens in Hungary since 2004 when some of the “white storks” thought that maybe it would be too difficult to fly 20000 km to Africa, they rolled the dice and made their future in the old Continent even in wintertime. Those who survived the first winter use to learn how to live this way and that it's possible, so they stayed in the coming year as well. The stork’s menu is so wide ranged that because of this - and of course beacuse of the climate change - this could happen.
I like the photos as well!