Take a stroll through the villages of Alsace in search of the famous storks…
Eight AM. It was the first day of my multi-day walking journey along the wine route of Alsace. Anticipation filled my heart. One of the smallest regions of France, Alsace is big on wonders. There are many hilltop castles, tranquil forests, picture-book-pretty villages and restaurants that serve hearty Alsatian dishes paired with excellent local wines.
As I left the already bustling cobbled streets of Eguisheim behind, I lost myself in the vast vineyards that carpet the surrounding hills. Over the next few days walking from one village to the next, I would find myself devoid of human contact. But never so alone that I was completely without company. Silently gliding with the wind above me, I observed the distinct long red beaks and the black-tipped wings of the famed white storks as they accompanied me on most of my journey.
Storks of Alsace
Visit Alsace in spring or summer and you’ll spot giant nests on rooftops, roadside poles and church towers in almost every village, town and city. Alsace is home to storks which migrate each year from Africa to spend the warmer months in Europe. They seem to particularly like the region’s natural environment.
The storks are faithful, not only to their spouse, but to their dwelling. They return every year to the same nest after their laborious long distance journey. The male arrives first, ensuring the nest is of optimum condition before the female joins him. Their young inherit the migratory instinct and begin their own journey back south in autumn. Amazingly, when the parents make their own path back, they know exactly where to find their offspring.
Telling of times
These birds have become somewhat of an oracle of the time of the year for farming activities, much like the groundhog of America. Stork abundance signifies a good year to come. A lack of storks can mean some hardship in living conditions.
The locals are friendly to storks. Many of the nests are formed on top of iron cages put there specially for the storks to move in. Perhaps it isn’t all for the storks though. If a stork decides to nest on top of a house, it is believed that good fortune (or a baby, if you wish for it) will come to those who live in this house.
The obsession with storks doesn’t stop at encouraging nest-making. Throughout Alsace, storks feature as names of hotels and restaurants, mountain bike trails and walking tours. There’s even a theme park dedicated to storks.
Walking from village to village in the spring, the sight of majestic birds sitting on their nests looking graceful and proud, was a constant feature.
Bird of Peace
Alsace has had a long association with its storks, known as störig in Alsatian, with a folktale dating back to 817. Louis the Pious, Emperor of the Carolingian Empire, wanted to divide his land among his three sons. Unfortunately, he was persuaded by his second wife to gift the full entitlement to her son only. This caused the other two sons to wage war against their father.
The peaceful storks saw the devastation and bloodshed that followed. And with blood staining their beaks and feet as they surveyed the land, decided to dip the tip of their wings in black and lose their voice in mourning. Storks have remained silent ever since.
Conservation of the white stork
Mute from birth, storks communicate by body language and clapping their beaks. A fact that I learned at the NaturOparC, a stork sanctuary and wildlife education centre in the village of Hunawihr.
In the 1970s, due to human expansion and loss of habitat, the stork population in Alsace hovered between extinction and survival. At one point there were less than ten breeding pairs sighted throughout the region. In 1983, a stork re-introduction programme was begun. One of the first repopulation centres was established in Cernay. Today, 30 stork couples are often seen flying around the town centre along the river looking for food.
Today, the region of Alsace is home to more than 600 couples.
NaturOparC was part of this successful program. It continues to provide a safe, open sanctuary for storks that come to nest in the treetops. Other than the storks undergoing medical treatment, the birds are free to come and go as they please, and the fact that so many stay is a sign that the environment is ideal for them.
Strategically built ladders and walkways allowed me to approach some of the nests at a safe distance (for the storks) and view them up close. Watching the storks relaxing in their nests, sleeping, preening, clapping their beaks – perhaps a couple in argument over whose turn it was to look after the baby – was a fairy tale moment, truly captivating.
The wine bringers
No visit to Alsace is complete without going to a few wine cellars for some tasting. And it is also of no surprise, that the storks have a beak in the wine business too.
“Oh, there are plenty of storks this year,” chuckled the bartender at the Bleger winery in Saint-Hippolyte, a town famous for Alsace’s only red wine, Pinot Noir. “When there are plenty of storks in spring, you know we are going to have a good harvest in autumn.”
Not only do the storks symbolise fertility, the Alsatian consider the storks to be the bringer of luck and wealth, and for the many winemakers of the region, they also bring a year of good harvest, meaning more wine for everyone.
You can visit NaturOparC in Hunawihr as part of the Inntravel self-guided walking itinerary in Alsace. For more information visit: www.inntravel.co.uk
Amy McPherson is a London based travel writer whose work has been featured in international publications. Cats, cycling and food features heavily in her writing and her blog at: www.footprintsandmemories.com