Munster France is a village with a dual population: Humans live in charming medieval houses; white storks and their half-ton nests rule the rooftops.
MUNSTER, France — This is a village with a dual population: Humans live in charming medieval houses; white storks and their half-ton nests rule the rooftops.
Gerard Wey, known in these parts as Papa Stork, is the emissary between man and bird. If an anxious villager reports a stork in danger, Wey and his crews rush to the scene. If the birds stage too large a takeover, he’s there to remove some nests.
For Wey, the gray-bearded director of the Association for the Protection and Reintroduction of Storks in Alsace and Lorraine, the birds that dominate Munster’s skyline represent a comeback story infused with as much symbolism as the bald eagle’s return from near-extinction in the United States.
Twenty-five years ago, the iconic emblem of Alsace — a bird revered for centuries as the bringer of fertility and luck to any home where it nested — had dwindled to fewer than nine pairs in the entire upper Rhine River Valley. Though white storks resided elsewhere in the world, they had all but disappeared from the region identified with them.
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Today, one of the most successful repopulation programs of its kind has restored the beloved white stork to the Alsace and Lorraine region, with at least 270 pairs nesting this year on the roofs and treetops of its picturesque villages.
“What’s important to me is keeping a species from disappearing in an area where people identified so closely with that species,” Wey said.
Protecting people, too
Nowhere is the man-and-nature balance more delicate than in Munster. The first pair of storks returned in 1988, five years after France launched the repopulation program. This year, white storks have built 23 nests here. Five balance atop the chimneys and roofs of a single building in the town center — a former monastery that now houses a kindergarten. Wey estimated that the tiny town can safely accommodate no more than 14 nests, and his crews have begun removing some.
“If one day a nest falls on a kid and kills him, no one will want to protect the storks,” he said.
But the villagers of Munster are fiercely protective of the leggy, long-necked birds.
Last winter, when Wey and his assistants dismantled a dangerous nest on a roof three stories above a busy restaurant, a woman telephoned his office and threatened to call the police on him.
Few wild creatures are as dependent for survival as the white storks of Alsace on a close equilibrium with humans, according to Wey. The storks of Alsace have lived among their human protectors for centuries.
In the 1970s and ’80s, vast numbers of them died on the annual migration to Africa. They smashed into power lines. African droughts depleted their winter food supplies. And in warring African nations, starving people ate them. By the early ’80s, 10 percent of the migratory storks were returning to Alsace each spring.
Today, about half of the Alsatian white-stork population migrates. Only about half of those make it to the traditional wintering grounds in Africa. The rest stop in Spain, where open Dumpsters provide easy meals.
“They realized it was easier to stay in Spain,” Wey said. “And the weather was nice.”
Protection measures were also taken. The national electric company developed special screens to keep the birds from nesting on poles where they could be electrocuted. Schoolchildren helped shore up deteriorating nests between breeding seasons. And residents were strictly forbidden to remove nests from their chimneys and rooftops.
“Stork correspondents” are appointed in every town in the region, tasked with reporting the movements of their local birds.
Visiting the nests
Wey makes the rounds of the entire region.
This is his busy season, when he bands 4- or 5-week-old birds with details about their birth and parentage. On a single recent day, he banded 34 young storks. The birds can live more than 30 years.
On his recent rounds he climbed into a repair truck’s mechanical bucket and ascended 20 feet to the edge of a mass of branches and twigs splattered with stork droppings and regurgitated meals.
Wey was stunned to find five young storks in one nest — “the highest number I’ve seen in a single nest in 25 years,” he said.
He has a stork nest on the roof of his own house and said he’s certain his stork couple, which has returned to the same nest for several years, recognizes the sound of his car when he returns home from work each day.