Germans Anxiously Await Return Of National Bird's Beloved Brood

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 5, 2007

GUMMERN, Germany -- If the storks are any guide, this northern German village should brace itself for a human baby boom of historic proportions.

Last spring, a mother white stork in Gummern hatched six eggs and raised her entire brood to maturity -- only the second time such a feat has occurred in this region along the Elbe River in the past 100 years, according to local wildlife records. News of the births spread quickly and caused a major sensation in a country where the stork is not only the national bird but a time-honored symbol of fertility and good luck.

"At first, we thought there were three, or four, or maybe five, and then we realized, 'No, no, there are six!' " said Ilse Hellman, 73, a lifelong Gummern resident who lives in an old farmhouse adjacent to where the stork parents had built a twiggy nest atop a utility pole. She and her family monitored the nest almost daily with binoculars and tried to count the fuzzy little heads that emerged. "We couldn't believe it. I've never seen six young ones in my life."

The births have been greeted as rare tidings of good news for a species, Ciconia ciconia, that has been nearly wiped out from many parts of northern and western Europe despite its reverential status in local folklore. The world-renowned legend that storks are responsible for delivering human infants -- by dropping them down the chimney after a long journey by air -- originated here centuries ago in the rural wetlands and river bottoms of northern Germany, a favorite stork habitat.

As their ancestors have done for thousands of years, the young storks and their parents abandoned the nest last August and began an annual migration south to Africa, a trip of nearly 3,000 miles. Their animal instincts will compel them to return to Gummern this spring, in late March or early April, and the villagers have already begun biting their nails in anticipation.

The odds of the storks surviving the trip are slim. The route is covered with hazards: electric power lines, giant windmills, hunters. Gawky storks are also poor flyers; they rely on warm air currents to keep them aloft and can travel only short distances over bodies of water. While reliable statistics are hard to come by, research suggests that the annual mortality rate for migrating storks is higher than 50 percent.

The Gummern storks, however, have already developed a loyal following of human supporters who are attempting to ease the journey. The New York-based Explorers Club, a renowned organization for explorers and adventurers, is sponsoring a project to trace the storks' migratory path and identify potential dangers.

Club members are traveling the same route as the storks, in an arc from northern Germany down to Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar and along the western coast of Africa. Lorie Karnath, an Explorers Club board member and director of its Western Europe chapter, said the organization is also working with the National Geographic Society to coordinate stork preservation efforts among local groups and governments in Europe and North Africa.

The young storks and their parents from Gummern are not wearing radio transmitters, so researchers do not know their whereabouts or how many are still alive. The birds were all tagged with leg bands before they left Germany, however, so the villagers will be able to confirm the identities of those that succeed in making the return trip.

"The odds are not huge, but I have to tell you -- I spent a lot of time with these storks last summer and they were a strong bunch," said Karnath, a U.S. citizen who lives in Berlin. "If any storks have a chance of making it, they do."

People in Gummern, a tiny farming village with 14 buildings and about twice as many full-time residents, have been keeping a close eye on their treasured storks for a long time.

In 1907, local officials in the district of Luechow-Dannenberg, which includes Gummern, ordered the police to take an annual census of white storks. Most were in plain sight: They favored building nests on the roofs of barns and farmhouses, untroubled by their proximity to people.

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