Across the Alsace region in north-eastern France, near the German border, the houses and chimneys are topped with special platforms. These are to accommodate the resident stork population (Les cigognes blanches), 1-metre tall migrating birds with long, slender beaks. Their elaborate nests on the rooftops can be gigantic – weighing 500kg and almost as large as a king size bed!
Their nests reshape the rooftop skylines across Alsace. In fact, the platforms built on the rooftops are to encourage them to nest in the centre of the towns and cities, and prevent chimneys from being blocked. The storks have grown to become a beloved symbol of the region, and are associated with fertility (they deliver the babies, after all!), happiness and good luck.
Storks as a symbol for babies
The most well known folklore of the strork is that of a deliverer of a new baby to a household. Families who want a baby place sweets for the stork on the windowsill. The stork flies to underground caves or marshes to pick up a baby, and delivers it to the house wrapped in a sheet or in a basket. The baby would then be given to the mother, or dropped down the chimney.
The migration of the storks
The storks have been migrating to Alsace for centuries, calling France home during the warmer months, and migrating down as far as South Africa in the winter. The male is the first to undertake the migration, arriving in early spring to repair the nest that was left behind last season. Later, when the nest is finished and comfortable, the females arrive to begin their mating and nesting season. Indeed, storks faithfully return to their same nests for their entire lives. By autumn, the baby storks are ready to leave their rooftop nests. They begin their first migration south, followed by the parents.
In the 1970’s, the stork population was at an all-time low, with an estimated 10 mating pairs left. It was thought that industrialisation and power lines were killing many, as were droughts and pesticides in Africa. While the species lived on in great numbers in other parts of Europe and the Middle East, the Alsace storks were on the brink of disappearing. France launched a conservation program to increase the population in 1983. The Parc de l’Orangerie in Strasbourg has a centre for reproduction that people can visit and learn about their story. Today, there are over 600 stork couples, with more than 50 in Strasbourg alone.
The stork as a symbol for Alsace
Storks have become synonymous with life in Alsace, and many souvenirs and stork-related items can be found in gift shops. There are stork hats, stork plush toys, stork keyrings, even a bar named after les cigognes.
The stork nests across the rooftops of Alsace cohabit with humans in a respectful alliance. The storks have a safe haven, and a comfortable and peaceful place to raise their families, aided by the nest structure built by people. In return, the people of the Alsace region enjoy the company of these magnificent birds, contributing to the local culture and folklore. It’s well worth remembering to look up next time you’re in the area!