Science

In Alsace, storks more numerous than ever

Their loud beaks and imposing nests are part of the landscape: in Alsace, white storks have never been so numerous, according to an ongoing national count, a sign of the successful reintroduction of a species that can now fly from its own wings.

Binoculars over his eyes, phone in hand, Yves Muller scrutinizes the nests perched on a pole, a tree or a roof. “An adult with three young”, “an additional nest that I had not seen” …, he dictates, before entering these elements in a database precisely locating each nest.

“The goal is to know exactly the French population of white storks and its distribution, because if we want to protect a species, we must know its numbers”, explains the president of the League for the protection of birds (LPO) Alsace.

For several weeks, hundreds of volunteer observers have been examining the nests and broods of cigogneaux.

Municipality of a thousand inhabitants in the natural park of the Vosges du Nord, Neuwiller-lès-Saverne has at least thirty nests. Some reach several hundred kilos and a meter or even two in height. Each year the pairs of storks add a thickness of branches.

Storks and their storks in their nest, in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne (Bas-Rhin), June 4, 2021. (AFP – FREDERICK FLORIN)

Young retiree and amateur photographer, Dominique remembers seeing a first pair of birds settling in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne “in the early 1990s”. “Now all the places are occupied, it is the housing crisis”, jokes the one who took thousands of photos of “(s) are neighbors”.

– 1,200 nests –

The census carried out by the LPO this year is “the first exhaustive count at the national level” for this species, explains Yves Muller.

If the black and white bird with the red beak has been present since at least the Middle Ages in Alsace and has become a symbol of it, white storks from Spain have also settled in numbers on the Atlantic coast of the country, in Charente. -Maritime, in Gironde, or in Morbihan.

The final data of this count should be known this winter. Already, a first estimate puts the Alsatian population at “1,200 occupied nests”, with, for each, a couple of birds and up to five young which will take flight around mid-June.

Such a population is unheard of, when the stork has come close to extinction in Alsace. In 1974, Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin had only nine nests, while there were still 145 pairs in 1960.

The president of the Alsace Bird Protection League (LPO), Yves Muller, counts the stork nests and their occupants on June 4, 2021 in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne (Bas-Rhin) (AFP - FREDERICK FLORIN)

The president of the Alsace Bird Protection League (LPO), Yves Muller, counts the stork nests and their occupants on June 4, 2021 in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne (Bas-Rhin) (AFP – FREDERICK FLORIN)

Very high mortality occurred during winter migration. Storks were being hunted, the drought in the Sahel prevented them from finding enough food, and power lines mowed them down in midair.

– Breeding in captivity –

Alsace then embarks on operations to reintroduce its favorite bird, with “repopulation enclosures”, in which storks are raised in captivity, losing their migratory instinct in a few years. The storks released into the wild allowed the species to thrive again quickly. Some 79 pairs were counted in 1990, then 565 in 2011 and 788 in 2015.

“We saved the storks of Alsace, now we let the population evolve freely”, explains Yves Muller, regularly interrupted by the snapping of the beak of a stork greeting his partner back in the nest before regurgitating the food brought back to the storks .

If the white stork remains a protected species, the LPO advocates that the bird is no longer artificially fed and that the population naturally regulates itself according to the food found in the wetlands.

Storks and their storks in their nest, June 4, 2021 in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne (Bas-Rhin). (AFP - FREDERICK FLORIN)

Storks and their storks in their nest, June 4, 2021 in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne (Bas-Rhin). (AFP – FREDERICK FLORIN)

The rescue of the white stork was based on a “specificity” of the species, that of reproducing well in captivity.

“We cannot do with all birds what we did with the stork”, regrets Yves Muller. In Alsace, the capercaillie or the black curlew are on the verge of extinction.

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